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Tampa Bay’s big-city mayors agree transit is a priority. What are they doing about it? | Editorial

Tampa Mayor Jane Castor and St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman should lead an effort for robust regional transit.
Tampa Mayor Jane Castor and St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman speak at a summit held by the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council's Resiliency Coalition this month in St. Petersburg. [LANGSTON TAYLOR  |  Times staff]
Tampa Mayor Jane Castor and St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman speak at a summit held by the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council's Resiliency Coalition this month in St. Petersburg. [LANGSTON TAYLOR | Times staff]
Published Jan. 17

At a regional summit on climate change earlier this month, Tampa Mayor Jane Castor joked about the jammed parking lot outside the hotel in the Carillon Office Park in north St. Petersburg. Castor and St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman both mentioned transit as a regional priority. So when are the mayors of the region’s largest cities going to lead an effort for robust, regional transit that is vital for the region’s future?

It’s the start of another year, with another study showing Tampa Bay ranking last among competitors such as Charlotte, Orlando and Minneapolis-St. Paul on transit. And no surprise, Tampa Bay is toward the top of the list in driving time spent in congestion. The report compiled by the Tampa Bay Partnership, the Community Foundation of Tampa Bay and the United Way Suncoast dryly notes "we are incredibly overdue for investments into our transportation options and infrastructure.'' The drivers who endure the daily commute across the Howard Frankland Bridge would agree in more colorful language.

South Florida, Orlando, Atlanta, Charlotte and Denver are among Tampa Bay’s competitors with rail systems. Austin, Nashville and Phoenix are among the partnership’s "peer communities'' with some form of bus rapid transit. Tampa Bay?

Plans, plans and more plans. In Pinellas County, local officials wait for the Trump administration to sign off on the federal contribution to a modest bus rapid transit line that would run from downtown St. Petersburg to the beaches. Meanwhile, the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority remains starved for cash and unable to provide the frequent, reliable service that would attract large numbers of middle-class riders and commuters. The Pinellas County Commission is mulling whether to put a transportation referendum on the November ballot, but there is no evidence of a grass roots effort that would be essential for it to pass.

Hillsborough County is further along, with voters approving a one-cent sales tax in 2018 to pay for a variety of transportation improvements, including enhanced transit. But a politically motivated legal challenge now rests at the Florida Supreme Court and jeopardizes the entire plan. Hillsborough’s transit agency, HART, is working on plans for a rapid bus line between downtown Tampa and the University of South Florida, but with a possible 20 stops that does not sound that rapid -- and the route would not cross the bay.

The Tampa Bay Area Regional Transit Authority? All quiet as it still studies a bus rapid transit line that would connect St. Petersburg, Tampa and Wesley Chapel. With about 250,000 commuters crossing county lines daily to go to work, anything would help. But where is the transformative vision, and where are the mayors?

Here are four ideas for Castor and Kriseman:

-- Hold a news conference at the foot of the Howard Frankland Bridge and call for a modern transit system to link downtown St. Petersburg and downtown Tampa to start. Invite U.S. Reps Kathy Castor of Tampa and Charlie Crist of St. Petersburg and the county commission chairs. Invite the governor and the next Florida House speaker, Chris Sprowls of Palm Harbor. Then drive across the bridge and say it all again on the other side (but leave an hour for traffic, just in case).

-- Call for the merger of the Hillsborough and Pinellas transit agencies. It’s hard to imagine a regional transit system without a regional delivery system.

-- Demand that the Florida Legislature allow cities of at least 100,000 residents to approve their own transportation taxes by voter referendum instead of requiring those taxes and referendums to be countywide. That would enable urban residents mostly likely to use transit to pay for it. It would leave out suburban voters who are less likely to tax themselves for a transit system they are less likely to use. It’s a tough sell, but it’s the right approach.

-- Host a regional transportation summit like this month’s successful summit on resilience and climate change. Block off the parking lot and tell everyone they cannot arrive in a car. There will be a clarion call for a robust, regional mass transit system -- or the room will be empty.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Tim Nickens, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.

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