1. Transportation

CEOs, Hillsborough politicians: Address transportation problems now

Published Jul. 24, 2013

TAMPA — A problem the region can no longer afford to ignore.

That's the consensus about transportation that emerged Tuesday from a discussion between local CEOs and elected Hillsborough city and county officials.

The chief executives said Tampa Bay's reputation for long commutes, sclerotic traffic and the lack of mass transit is increasingly an obstacle when it comes to recruiting companies and workers — especially young professionals who live in metro areas where they don't need cars.

"The young talent we want wants mass transit. Roads are important but not the whole picture," said Greg Celestan, CEO of the 150-employee defense firm Celestar and chairman of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce. "People want different options."

Including rail, said Gary Sasso, CEO of Tampa's Carlton Fields law firm, which has 250 lawyers and staff in the West Shore district.

"It's critical to have a long-term vision of mass transit that includes rail," Sasso said. "There are rail developments under way in Miami and along Florida's east coast. We do not want to be left out."

Those comments came at a meeting of the transportation policy leadership group — a panel that includes the Hillsborough County Commission; the mayors of Tampa, Temple Terrace and Plant City; and the chairwoman of Hillsborough Area Regional Transit.

On Tuesday, the group invited business leaders to talk about how transit — or its absence — fits into the larger economic development picture.

"We do not lack for roads or buses here," said Bryan Crino, president of downtown Tampa's Skyway Capital Partners. "Our real shortage is we do not have effective mass transit that people are willing to choose over getting into their cars."

The transportation policy group began meeting in May to get past the historic divisiveness and city-versus-county rivalries that have undermined previous efforts to address the area's transportation deficits.

In 2010, voters countywide rejected a proposed 1 cent increase in the sales tax to pay for a range of road improvements, added bus service and a new commuter rail system. The tax carried precincts in Tampa but failed in unincorporated Hillsborough, where suburbanites were less convinced of its benefits.

Now elected officials say their success at bringing in new business is increasingly tied to transit. They are not only talking about coming up with another plan, but edging toward the point where they propose a way to pay for it.

The difference, they said Tuesday, is there's a unity of purpose that hasn't been present before.

"The vision, the foresight is in place this time," Temple Terrace Mayor Frank Chillura said.

In 2010, before he was mayor, he didn't support the previous transit referendum because he didn't have enough information about its scope and impact. Doing the outreach to make sure businesses and voters buy into the plan is key, he said.

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Now, Chillura said, "I just think it's the right start. The climate is right, the leaders are unified right now, and I think it's time we really start to put a plan in place. There's preplanning going on. We're not doing first and thinking later."

Another key, County Commissioner Mark Sharpe said, is having a sense of urgency.

"My only worry is that we're going to delay," Sharpe said.

"We're never going to get a chance like we have right now," agreed Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn. "If we don't do it now, shame on us."

Times business columnist Robert Trigaux contributed to this report.