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Jeff Vinik: Politicians are holding back Tampa Bay's transit future

Tampa businessman Jeff Vinik listens to a presentation on transit in Charlotte. Vinik was one of about 20 Tampa Bay business leaders to visit the peer city earlier this week to learn about light rail, buses and development. [Tampa Bay Partnership]
Published Jul. 15, 2017

TAMPA — Jeff Vinik said Friday that it's local politicians, not the business community, who are holding Tampa Bay back when it comes to transit.

"Our business community is behind it," said Vinik, a driving force in developing Tampa's downtown, during a Friday meeting recapping a recent Charlotte visit to learn about transit. "The political community is mixed and not there yet."

It's up to the business community and the public to help politicians understand how critical an issue transit is for Tampa Bay, Vinik said.

Vinik was one of about 20 business leaders who spent two days in Charlotte this week to learn how a similar-sized Southern city was able to build transit, including light rail, a streetcar and buses. Friday's meeting focused on lessons learned and how to apply those tips here in Tampa Bay.

Rhea Law, chairwoman of the Tampa Bay Partnership, which organized the Charlotte trip, said it's essential that the partnership help politicians understand exactly what's at stake when it comes to transit. That's a lot easier to do, she said, when those politicians have the chance to experience rail or express buses or other transit themselves.

"Until you see it, until you touch it and ride it and understand what it is, it's pretty hard to jump behind a concept that's got a big dollar figure in front of it," Law said.

Local politicians have made similar trips to Charlotte and other cities over the past decade to evaluate those systems and how something similar can happen in Tampa Bay.

As happens in many cities, the business community has spearheaded the charge to bring transit to the region. The Tampa Bay Partnership helped push through a bill this past legislative session to transform the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority into a regional transit authority. The second "T" in the TBARTA was changed from "transportation" to "transit" to reflect this.

But any transit plan would need the support of local politicians, most notably the county commissions, to allocate money and approve the project.

This has been especially challenging in Hillsborough County, where commissioners last year voted against giving residents the chance to decide whether to tax themselves to raise money for roads, transit and pedestrian improvements. Commissioners including Victor Crist and Sandy Murman said the plan was premature and they didn't want to risk putting something on the ballot that voters might reject.

Vinik and others did not go as far to suggest that new political leadership is needed in order to bring transit to the region. Instead, communication and education are key, they said.

In response to Vinik's comments, Crist told the Tampa Bay Times he didn't think it was a fair assessment to say politicians are the ones who need to get on board for transit to move forward in Tampa Bay. Instead, he said, the business community needs to lead the effort to produce an actual plan — complete with engineering details, ridership projections, costs and revenue projections — before politicians sign off on it.

"Public officials have to answer to the taxpayer," Crist said Friday. "I have to be able to look at the taxpayer and say, 'I saw the plan and this is a reasonable expenditure for your tax dollar.' A vision is not a plan."

Barry Shevlin, chief executive officer of Clearwater-based computer services company Vology, said the TBARTA bill this past legislative session was a good example of how the business community can work together with politicians to make something happen. Before the session started, Shevlin and others were told there was "absolutely no chance" the TBARTA bill would be heard, let alone passed.

"I'd like to point to that as an example where the business community became very engaged and invested a lot of time, effort and energy to educate and communicate to our constituents and our public officials to ensure that was a priority," Shevlin said. "And we did see some success there."

Vinik on Friday announced that he belongs to a group of local investors who loaned $12 million to the Times as part of its refinancing.

Contact Caitlin Johnston at cjohnston@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst.

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