As the Tampa Bay region struggles to improve its transportation system, Pinellas County Commissioner Janet Long on Tuesday unveiled what she called a "big, bold, visionary" plan to alleviate the area's woes.
Long proposed consolidating the bay area's alphabet soup of transportation agencies: the Metropolitan Planning Organizations in Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough counties; the area's bus agencies, the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority and the Pinellas Suncoast Regional Transit Authority; and the regional planning groups, the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority and the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council.
"The crisis is here," Long said, adding she does not support creating a new organization with taxing authority. "The synergy is perfectly lined up between Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco ... if we combine them, we'll have a win-win."
The move comes on the heels of the federal government's insistence on one regional set of transportation priorities similar to those serving metro areas such as Denver, Seattle and Minneapolis-St. Paul. The government wants one regional plan that would cover 20 years of expected growth in overlapping metro areas. Local leaders would have two years to devise a plan once the federal rules are finalized.
For two years, Long has worked on the plan with St. Petersburg City Council member Jim Kennedy and Whit Blanton, executive director of Forward Pinellas. The trio have solicited input from state and local officials and business leaders. But more outreach is needed in Pasco County, Blanton said. Long plans to schedule meetings to brief other local leaders in the coming weeks.
Other Pinellas commissioners offered support but said the conversation should include elected leaders across the region. Commissioner Karen Seel called on a joint meeting of the three county commissions.
Meanwhile, Beth Alden, executive director of the Hillsborough MPO, said the leaders of the region's planning organizations have discussed a similar concept for years.
"There's a lot of history behind this conversation," Alden said. "We have one regional plan. We have one regional planing list."
Last month, Hillsborough County Commission chairman Les Miller sent a two-page letter to the federal Department of Transportation saying the county supports and promotes regional approaches to decision making.
But any such move to consolidate would need support from state and federal lawmakers and dozens of commissioners, mayors and council members across the region.
Elected leaders often talk about the spirit of regional cooperation for transportation, but those efforts have been rebuffed in recent years.
In 2012, state Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, wanted to study consolidating the bus agencies, HART and PSTA. But HART's board balked at that.
Latvala still supports merging the agencies and said he applauded Long, a Democrat, for a "creative approach" in coming up with a plan. He cautioned he has not examined the specific details but said one regional MPO would better serve the region.
"I am supportive of a more regional approach," Latvala said. "I wish her the best."
State Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, has examined the details in Long's plan and said she has shown leadership, adding: "What we're doing now is not working."
TBARTA executive director Ray Chiaramonte said the agency's board recently voted to ask the state to help pay for a study to determine the best way to move the region forward on transportation. He estimates it would cost $100,000 or more.
Chiaramonte said Tuesday's presentation follows the same path TBARTA supports to improve transportation. He said it does "make sense" for local leaders to determine the best makeup of one planning organization for the region. He prefers to wait until the federal rules are finalized and a study is completed.
HART CEO Katharine Eagan said she has talked with Long since 2015 about transportation issues. Eagan, who has worked at transit agencies in Maryland and Texas, said local leaders must work together to move the region forward. Long's plan merits more discussions, he added.
"A council of governments can be a very big step forward," Eagan said. "We clearly have an opportunity to do better."
PSTA CEO Brad Miller said the Tampa Bay region needs a more consolidated view on transportation, especially because bus routes don't extend beyond county lines.
Transportation doesn't operate in a vacuum, he said, and helps drive the economy and housing. Long's blueprint, Miller said, mirrors those in other large metro areas, adding: "A transportation plan needs to have a higher-level focus."
Contact Mark Puente at email@example.com or (727) 892-2996. Follow @MarkPuente