Lagging on mass transit, Tampa Bay tries to get its act together again

The expected population influx to Tampa Bay could create massive gridlock.
The expected population influx to Tampa Bay could create massive gridlock.
Published July 26, 2013

As more businesses and younger generations judge places by their mass transit services, Tampa Bay could become an endangered species.

Will this area ever get a regional transportation system together?

Among area businesses, the tales of frustration mount from this region's slow progress.

Celestar defense firm chief executive officer Greg Celestan wanted to bring two younger associates to the Tampa headquarters from his firm's office near Washington, D.C. When they said they wanted to live somewhere without relying on a car, he told them to stay there.

"I think that the lack of reliable mass transit adversely affects our ability to attract a younger demographic that does not want to drive to work or entertainment," Celestan says.

Strike one for Tampa Bay.

Florida Blue regional chief David Pizzo sees an improving economy that must soon handle hundreds of thousands more people moving to Tampa Bay. But he sees little progress toward a regional mass transit to meet the coming demand. "We are setting ourselves up for potential failure," Pizzo says. "In five to 10 years, do we want to become a gridlocked city that no business wants to go to?"

Strike two for Tampa Bay.

Cushman & Wakefield commercial real estate executive Larry Richey points to the nation's two mass transit laggards among major metro areas: Tampa Bay and Detroit, which just declared bankruptcy. When developers look for best sites for a new project, he says, they run down a checklist that assesses the quality of mass transit.

"Transportation is a gap here," says Richey.

Is strike three on its way? We're certainly getting closer to an economic whiff unless we get our mass transit house in order. While fresh initiatives are under way, the pace of change is slow. And each county making up metro Tampa Bay is moving at a different pace.

The Tampa Bay metro area badly lags most metro areas in key measures of mobility. On average, a worker living here can reach only 16 percent of area jobs within the first 90 minutes of using area mass transit. Compare that to the average among the 100 largest metro areas, where workers can reach nearly a third of all area jobs in that same transit time. Those figures come from a 2011 national study by the Brookings Institution.

Overall, Brookings says Tampa Bay ranked 77th among the top 100 metro areas for accessible mass transit. That's just below Jackson, Miss., and just above the likes of Columbia, S.C., and Worcester, Mass.

Let's be clear up front on what "mass transit" means here in the near term. It does not mean some super-expensive and elaborate light-rail system. It probably would mean a mix of improved roads with managed lanes (like HOV lanes to encourage more carpooling), faster and more reliable bus service and, perhaps, a few light-rail lines linking Tampa International Airport and the West Shore district or St. Petersburg, the Gateway area and Clearwater.

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The good news is Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties (and some neighboring counties) are starting to recognize that improving the regional transportation system may be one of the best ways to spark economic development and attract better jobs in the years ahead.

Linking mass transit to economic strength may seem like a no-brainer in 2013. But local governments here grew wary and timid of mass transit talk during the severe recession and the spike in vocal antitax sentiment, especially after Hillsborough's 2010 penny tax referendum for mass transit improvements was so soundly defeated.

Three years later, county leaders across the metro area are reviving plans for mass transit. In some cases, as in Hillsborough, elected officials feel emboldened by vastly improved political relations between county and Tampa city leaders.

Carlton Fields law firm chief executive officer Gary Sasso, who was closely involved in the push by business for the penny tax, frets that Tampa Bay may not only fall farther behind like-sized metro areas in the country, but also trail places like Miami, Orlando and Jacksonville. On Florida's east coast, a network of commuter and light-rail systems is expanding. And Sasso, who toured some of those systems last week, does not want to see this metro area bypassed.

"I am bullish about Tampa Bay, Florida and the U.S.," says the attorney, who competes to bring top legal talent to his Tampa firm against other attractive metro areas. The CEO sees a "golden era" for a metro region about to take off.

"There is a cost to do something" for mass transit, says Hillsborough commissioner Mark Sharpe, who showed political courage this past week by raising the possibility of new taxes for mass transit. "But there is also a cost if we do not." He worries the recently won consensus by county officials to do something could be easily derailed.

Several county commissioners, including Sandy Murman, say they want public-private partnerships formed to help share the cost of any mass transit system.

In search of more voices on this topic, a 6 p.m. meeting seeking the public's input on mass transit options will be held Aug. 6, at the Hillsborough County government offices in downtown Tampa.

When Hillsborough unsuccessfully pushed for a 2010 penny tax referendum, Pinellas County watched and waited.

Now Pinellas has decided the time is right and plans its own 2014 tax referendum for mass transit. The plan calls for major county upgrades to bus service and 24 miles of light-rail service connecting Clearwater, Largo, the Gateway area, Pinellas Park and St. Petersburg with a connection to Hillsborough across the Howard Frankland Bridge.

An analysis by Jacobs Engineering says Pinellas would gain nearly 67,000 jobs over 30 years with a light rail system, and just over 48,000 jobs in the same period if a BRT or "bus rapid transit" system were adopted instead.

"The hurdle in Pinellas is that everybody uses transportation but does not think about it," says Kevin Thurman, executive director of the 8-month-old, grass roots Connect Tampa Bay group that supports area mass transit initiatives. "Education will be key."

Better mass transit supports quality of life and economic development, Thurman says. That's the message his organization will stress in the coming months. At 32, Thurman and his wife live in downtown Tampa and rely on one car. He wants people to be comfortable getting around the metro area without a car, but admits that day is a ways off.

If voters don't get behind mass transit plans soon, he says, they will later — when his generation becomes a greater voting force in the Tampa Bay market.

Mass transit coming here is not an if, but when, agrees Sasso, who best expresses the business community's sense of urgency.

"It will happen but let's not be so foolish as to postpone its enjoyment."

If this metro area waits much longer, more expanding businesses and young talent will look elsewhere for a better opportunity. By then, it may be too late.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at