1. Opinion

Column: Even with rapid buses, Tampa Bay needs light rail

Published Feb. 6, 2018

It's encouraging to see we are working on a bus rapid transit plan for the Tampa Bay region, which we need if it's conceived and implemented well.

But Tampa Bay also needs light rail.

What's so special about rail? Don't ask transportation officials or engineers this question. Tell most of them which two areas you want to connect, and they will tell you how to do it. That is their job, but it is reactive. That approach waits for more urban sprawl and responds with more or bigger roads.

Rail is not about connecting existing population centers or taking away anyone's car. It's about shaping smart growth in the future and creating the kind of population centers we want to have.

Only rail can do this, because the system is fixed: It sends a signal to the investment community about where they can build. It spurs transit-oriented development in ways other transportation modes cannot.

The Tampa Bay Partnership conducted a "One Bay" study 15 years ago and asked 10,000 residents what kind of communities they wanted. They said they wanted high-density urban living, where we consolidate office, residential, retail and entertainment in walkable communities. These are the kinds of communities light rail can stimulate and then connect. Baby boomers and millennials alike want to leave their urban home, get on a train and go to work, dinner, a hockey game or the theater.

The urban centers we compete with around the country for business and talent provide this option. Tampa Bay doesn't, and we are falling further behind. More than a decade after its original light rail line opened, Charlotte is opening a 9.3-mile extension to the UNC-Charlotte campus in March.

So what are the impediments to the realization of this vision?

First, ironically, is our desire to foster the competitive position of Tampa Bay regionally. Any regional system will have many components, but we can't approach them all the same way or at the same time. When it comes to rail, discussions on a regional scale tend to default to commuter rail (or bus rapid transit). That's very different from the light rail systems that spur transit-oriented development. Light rail systems tend to arise within a city.

When we tackle anything regionally, we also have to grapple with multiple political jurisdictions. For rail, it's much more feasible to face issues one city at a time. And the cost of any regionwide rail system can be daunting. Many communities around the country have figured out that it's best to start a light rail system inside one city. They can connect regionally as they proliferate.

The second impediment is our fixation on federal funding. Federal criteria for rail are built off reactive transportation planning principles. We can't qualify for federal money for rail until we show we have existing demand for public transit along the routes in question. But this is using rail to respond to existing sprawl, not to prevent it. And it falsely assumes demand for buses will be interchangeable with demand for light rail. Relying on federal funding criteria also increases the time and expense of completing any project.

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We hear rail is an outdated "19th century technology," soon to be overtaken by driverless cars and ridesharing. Yet credible experts project that driverless cars will not be in widespread use for another 30 or 40 years. Are you likely to give up your car anytime soon? When asked recently whether public transportation will be supplanted by self-driving technology, Uber said, "In many communities, mass transit is the backbone of their transportation systems" and called for support for projects that integrate new technology and sharing applications into public transit.

Third, we hear about lack of money or political will. We have stumbled on funding because we have tied creation of an urban light rail system to massive countywide, comprehensive transportation initiatives. We have asked voters in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties to approve building these systems, and they acted in their self-interest and shot down tax increases.

The fact is, voters have elected representatives to make these decisions, not toss the ball back to us or to default reflexively to countywide sales tax increases. If we approach this incrementally and strategically, the cost becomes less intimidating. Other communities have found the way. We can and should, too.

What's the fix?

We need to shed the limitations I've described and develop a "can do" attitude about getting this done. Let's issue a request for proposals to solicit proposals by developers to develop the system we need through a public private partnership known as P3. Lately, P3 projects are being instigated by the private sector. Groups of developers and others are putting together proposals too enticing and provocative to pass up, encouraging the public sector to seek proposals. There are ways to get this done, but only if we stop being derailed by arguments that can't withstand scrutiny.

Gary Sasso is president and CEO of Carlton Fields. He chaired the board of the Tampa Bay Partnership in 2010 when the partnership supported Moving Hillsborough Forward, the Hillsborough County referendum on HART's comprehensive transportation plan, and he led the Partnership's Transportation Task Force for many years thereafter. This column reflects his personal views and not those of the partnership or any other entity.