TAMPA — He’d heard about the sun-soaked city scooping up grant after grant from the federal government, so last week Carlos Monje Jr., one of the nation’s top transportation officials, flew to Tampa.
Waiting for him was a mayor eager to show how her team was putting the $100 million in competitive funding they’d secured in the last four years to work — and what she could do with more.
“Much of Tampa’s success is the direct result of federal investment and specifically from the Biden Administration,” Mayor Jane Castor wrote in the brochure prepared for Monje, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s under secretary for policy.
It had been more than four years since Hillsborough County voted to increase the sales tax to fund transportation improvements. It had been two years since the Florida Supreme Court ruled the tax unconstitutional. And still, congested streets, dangerous intersections and bare-bones bus routes remained.
Meanwhile, Castor said her staff — with “support from the best congresswoman in the country,” U.S. Rep Kathy Castor, D-Tampa — had “aggressively” pursued federal funding to address the city’s insufficiencies. Since taking office in 2019, she’d expanded the grants team from one staff member to three, and the government affairs department from one to two.
In Florida’s third-largest city, limited transportation investment has not kept up with basic maintenance, let alone deliver infrastructure such as rapid bus lines and light rail found in other similarly-sized metro areas.
Tampa has more than $100 billion in mobility needs, said the brochure city staff handed Monje. They’d planned a morning of zig-zagging through downtown by van, streetcar and boat to show progress and potential.
“Excited to be here,” he said.
“Thank you for coming,” Castor said, and before long everyone was whisked away for the first leg of the tour.
The majority of transportation money that originates in Washington is allocated to states, which have final say in how it is spent. But the Infrastructure Law armed U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and his team with billions of dollars and new-found spending discretion to upgrade the nation’s roads, bridges, transit, pipes, ports and other public works.
The legislation — which passed Congress in 2021 with bipartisan support though none of Florida’s Republican elected officials voted for it — represents a unique opportunity for communities to scramble for influence in the nation’s capital.
In February, U.S. Rep Castor and Mayor Castor announced a $20 million federal grant for street safety improvements near parks, schools and transit hubs.
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Two weeks later, they announced $5.3 million to help remove an interstate exit ramp that bifurcated historically Black neighborhoods, severed Tampa’s downtown street grid and routed high-speed traffic into the urban core.
In the last year, U.S. Rep Castor has also helped secure $12.6 million to construct a new berth for Port Tampa Bay, $5 million for bus stop improvements across Hillsborough County and nudged President Biden to include a new air traffic control tower at Tampa International Airport in his next budget.
Now the congresswoman, the mayor, the under secretary and about a dozen city staff clambered aboard the streetcar. Behind the controls was Connie Cosme, the line’s longest-serving operator.
Beyond the glass stretched a city with one of the hottest real estate markets in the country, where a cost of living crisis had taken root. In Tampa, the average household spends 53% of its income on housing and transportation costs, more than in cities from Denver to Dallas and New York to Nashville, according to the Center for Neighborhood Technology.
The streetcar rumbled past the city’s first five-star hotel, which opened in October, and the $3.5 billion Water Street Tampa development, recently named the world’s first WELL-certified city district due to its focus on sustainability and walkability. The neighborhood will have filtered water bottle refilling stations, tree-canopy shaded sidewalks and a community wellness center.
Beyond sprawls one of the most treacherous metro areas in the country for pedestrians.
“Tampa is in the midst of a public health crisis,” reads the city’s application for a recently-awarded grant to improve safety. “...Our roads are unsafe for everyone, but particularly so for people walking.”
In 2020, Tampa hired its first Vision Zero coordinator, joining an international pledge to eliminate traffic deaths and severe injuries. The year after, as roads emptied amid the pandemic nationwide, the number of fatalities jumped to 81, almost double the average of the previous five years.
“There’s still so much potential here,” said the Mayor, an avid cyclist, as the streetcar pushed on. “We just need more safe streets.”
The streetcar has evolved from a charming yet oft-disparaged tourist attraction into one of the county’s few reliable public transit options for those lucky enough to benefit from its 2.7-mile footprint.
“You saw the SunRunner in St. Pete?” said U.S. Rep Castor, the recently-opened rapid bus line which shuttles between downtown St. Petersburg and St. Pete Beach.
“That’s what we’re going to need here,” she said.
Even as ridership soars to new heights and frequency is increased at peak times, uncertainty clouds the streetcar’s future. Three years ago, the Florida Department of Transportation awarded $67.3 million to support the line’s extension. But the city hasn’t yet been able to produce the local funding match needed to access the grant.
Last week, Tampa’s transportation engineering manager Danni Jorgenson said the city believes the department is willing to extend the June deadline, adding: “we continue to work to find funding for the local match.”
Near the convention center, the group swapped the streetcar for a Pirate Water Taxi along the Hillsborough River, where federal grants are fueling pedestrian improvements on both banks.
“Look to your right. Look at the activity,” Tampa’s director of mobility Vik Bhide said into the microphone, motioning to the east, home to a 2.6-mile pedestrian path along the downtown waterfront which sees more than 100,000 runners, walkers and bikers and a month. “That’s what we want to do on the west side.”
In 2020, U.S. Rep Castor helped the city secure $24 million to partially fund a 5-mile westward expansion. The additional trail will bring improved sidewalks, bike lanes and crossings. It is expected to be mostly completed by the end of 2026.
As the boat continued to curl along the river, Monje surveyed the scene.
“Mayors are my favorite,” he said. “They see what others miss. They always see possibility.”
His boss, Buttigieg, served two terms as mayor of South Bend, Ind. — a fact Bren I. George-Nwabugwu Sr., a senior transportation engineer for the department, had reminded Tampa staff earlier that morning. “He understands the importance of local,” he said. “Take advantage of it. Now is the time.”
“The best ideas aren’t going to come from Washington. Solutions are different place to place,” Monje said. Away from the boardrooms and spreadsheets, “it was great to be out seeing first-hand how these dollars are actually helping people.”
The boat glided under Cass Street Bridge, recently redesigned with expanded space for walkers and bikers. The project is the first in Tampa’s Quick Build Program, smaller-scale safety projects that can be implemented “quickly and more cost effectively while still making significant impacts,” according to city staff.
Critics says the city’s priorities nibble at the edges of structural problems like bare-bones public transit and a reliance on cars for work and life ingrained in the region’s culture.
Elsewhere, infrastructure dollars were helping to develop high-speed rail between Raleigh, N.C., to Richmond, Va. In Detroit, an interstate that wrecked a Black community was being torn down and turn it into a boulevard. Between Ohio and Kentucky, a new bridge was under construction.
Beyond budgets, major U.S. cities are taking steps to reclaim streets for pedestrians and other non-motorists. Municipalities from Michigan to Washington, D.C. banned right turns at red lights, and others are doubling-down on plans to restrict driving on main streets.
The group disembarked and headed for a city-owned parking lot where cameras and microphones awaited them for a press conference. The lot sits in the shadow of the Ashley Drive interstate exit ramp, soon to be removed with the help of a grant announced last month.
The construction of Interstate 275 severed Tampa’s downtown street grid and routed high-speed regional traffic into the urban core. The ramp forces pedestrians hoping to access the waterfront to either detour or race across the street without traffic signals. The “Ashley Dash,” in local parlance.
The interchange will be lowered to street level, helping to restore connectivity in one of the city’s most diverse neighborhoods, where residents are twice as likely to walk, bike or take transit to work and three times more likely to not own a car than other Tampa residents, according to census data.
This project, the Mayor told the audience, was one step in a years-long push to improve mobility in the city.