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Tampa, a city on the move?

With the transportation tax in legal limbo, maybe not so much. But public officials give some hope.
Tampa traffic backs up at a familiar spot: near the David A. Straz, Jr. Center for the Performing Arts before a show. Where's that transportation tax we voted in to soothe our traffic woes? [URSO, CHRIS  |  Tampa Bay Times]
Tampa traffic backs up at a familiar spot: near the David A. Straz, Jr. Center for the Performing Arts before a show. Where's that transportation tax we voted in to soothe our traffic woes? [URSO, CHRIS | Tampa Bay Times]

Back when Tampa was a sleepier sort of town, with downtown streets that went silent after 5 p.m., it was easy to mock the municipal motto of the moment:

Tampa: America’s Next Great City!

Now fast forward a few dozen years to a possible new slogan, one you can actually say with a straight face:

Tampa, A Legit City After All!

Look around and you can’t miss it: Old neighborhoods revived and reviving, a respectable and growing skyline, a bustling downtown where people actually live. A Riverwalk winds prettily around a body of water that, when I got here, you might not have known existed. A fledgling ferry crosses the bay between Tampa and sister city St. Petersburg.

And for that traffic gridlock and other getting-around worries that come with a city’s success, well, forward-thinking residents voted in a transportation tax plan last year to take us into the future.

Oh, wait.

Hillsborough voters did the unthinkable last November when they agreed to tax themselves an extra penny sales tax on the dollar. This would pay for mounting transportation needs from sidewalks to bus service to roads — improvements on which we are way behind.

But Hillsborough County Commissioner Stacy White — who opposed the tax — promptly sued, as has a resident named Bob Emerson.

So here we are, a year later, still stuck in traffic with the whole thing in the hands of the Florida Supreme Court.

The good news: Some public officials who grasp that our transit troubles will only get worse are making plans anyway.

As the Times’ Caitlin Johnston reported, staff from the county and Tampa, Temple Terrace and Plant City recently laid out extensive wish lists for the first year of the tax — including 32 streets countywide made safer for cars, bikes and pedestrians, roads resurfaced, bus routes restored and bridges rehabilitated.

If the tax doesn’t get, to use the legal parlance, scrapped.

Another elected official who gets it: Tampa’s new mayor Jane Castor, who last week called our transit problems the “single most important, over-arching issue facing our community today.”

The city has plans for interlinked bus, rail, streetcars and bike and pedestrian paths, courtesy of a transportation board Castor appointed a few months ago. The city would get more than $30 million a year if the tax beats the legal challenge.

If it doesn’t?

Castor talked about finding other sources to pay for what we need. A potential (and, she said, “obvious”) alternate route would be another vote in 2020.

For something people who live, drive, walk and bike here have already made clear they want.

Truth is, Tampa is a scrappy town used to roadblocks, pot holes and speed bumps on the ride to its potential.

So it’s good to know that even in legal limbo, not everyone thinks the answer to fixing our mounting transportation troubles is to just stand still.

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