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Creating one transportation planning agency for all of Tampa Bay won't be easy

Viewed from the southbound lanes, traffic in the northbound lanes of Interstate 275 in Tampa slow to a crawl in early 2016. Tampa Bay leaders are considering a new idea: merging transportation planners into one regional agency. [WILL VRAGOVIC | Times]
Published May 13, 2017

CLEARWATER — They gathered around tables and tried to imagine what successful regional transportation planning could look like.

Politicians, citizens, civil servants. Residents of multiple counties. Light rail advocates and opponents. The nearly 200 participants were a microcosm of a diverse population that could, one day, be represented by a regional Metropolitan Planning Organization that represents all of Tampa Bay — and not just each individual county.

But Friday's workshop at St. Petersburg College's Collaborative Labs showed just how complicated it can be to reach consensus, especially on one of the region's most hot-button topics.

The exercise kicked off the process of evaluating whether merging individual MPOs — the groups that oversee transportation planning on a county level — into one regional agency is a good idea for Tampa Bay.

"We can't go through this without turmoil, difficulty and change," said transportation official Ray Chiaramonte.

Business leaders believe that a regional MPO is the next step in the bay area's transportation future. Tampa Bay Partnership president Rick Homans and other economic development leaders successfully lobbied the Legislature to turn the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority into the Tampa Bay Regional Transit Authority.

If the governor signs the bill into law, the new TBARTA will focus on transit. But the bay area needs more than an operating agency, Homans said, there's still a void in regional planning.

For some, a regional MPO is the next logical step. Most major metropolitan areas across the country have one MPO, but it's less common in Florida.

For others, it's a loss of sovereignty. A regional MPO would remove local control and could make vying for transportation dollars even harder than it already is.

The group listed the key ingredients for a successful regional planning group: accountability, equity, public engagement, a focus on economic development and improved mobility.

But in the middle of the discussion was tension between a regional vision and local independence.

"It's a balancing act," facilitator Rafael Montalvo told the group. "The point of this is to explore whether there is a balance that will work for most."

Hillsborough Tea Party co-founder Sharon Calvert, for one, opposes a regional MPO. She said there's too much risk of losing local control. The bigger the entity, she said, the more removed it is from the individuals it serves.

"It makes it a bigger food fight into a smaller amount of money," Calvert said. "Who is responsible to me in this regional group?"

But others see it as a way to focus regional priorities without casting aside local needs.

"The overall sense I got was that we need a strong regional entity still with strong local input that goes into that," said Chiaramonte, executive director of TBARTA.

Friday's input will be used by the group studying the idea. That group is also supposed to search the nation for best practices for a regional MPO structure. There will be more other opportunities to gather local input, Montalvo said, and more workshops. The study should be completed by December, complete with a recommendation.

The group could come back, Pinellas MPO executive director Whit Blanton said, and declare that a unified, regional MPO will not work in Tampa Bay.

"The local, regional tension will never go away," he said. "There's this respect you always have to have for local community and local needs, but at a certain point you can't let it paralyze what you need to do to move a region forward.

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

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