Column: Let's focus on 'right now' transit solutions

Published Feb. 24, 2017

It's no secret that Tampa Bay has transportation problems.

For the past 30 years, we've watched as other metropolitan regions, both larger and smaller than ours, have succeeded in planning and implementing major improvements or building new systems altogether. What these other communities have done, with persistence over time, is build a culture of transit by making incremental steps toward a better-connected future. Having been around to witness enough "all or nothing" proposals for regional transit come and go, it's time to start paying attention to the incremental projects that will move our region forward as well.

In the Times article, "A Long Way to Go," the complex situation for regional transit in Tampa Bay is described perfectly. As the article points out, each agency does the best job it can of maintaining service for neighborhoods and connecting them to local areas of employment. However, for our multicentered region, which has several major employment centers and over 400,000 individuals who work in a different county than where they live, that's not enough. Closing these gaps and expanding to connect with other counties is something we can accomplish in time. Yet, with federal transportation grants becoming more competitive, the future of our mobility is increasingly dependent on action and innovation at both the local and regional levels.

Despite these long-term challenges, there are low-cost "right now" solutions that can help set our compass to intelligently move forward. These are existing service improvements flexible enough to be expanded quickly, and they are part of the incremental approach that will allow us to "right size" our transit system to begin meeting our needs as we grow.

The Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority acted on this approach when it merged with the vanpooling agency, Bay Area Commuter Services, in 2010. This merger added to TBARTA's mission as a regional transportation planning agency the ability to offer "right now" options for commuters. In the two years that I've been executive director, the vanpool service has expanded to 100 vehicles, providing over 1,200 trips each workday, mostly for workers that live too far to take transit.

As a public-private partnership with the largest vanpooling service provider in the country, TBARTA's vanpool program can be expanded to meet customer needs with minimal resources. The vehicles are leased rather than purchased, and all services such as maintenance and insurance are provided through the vendor. This arrangement provides the potential to address immediate needs for regional transit while keeping our focus on plans for express lanes, bus rapid transit and other transit projects that could help connect both our region and local communities to job centers.

Having traveled extensively across our region and seeing how fast some of our areas are developing, I've come to realize the full magnitude of Tampa Bay's economic might. We have approximately 4 million residents spread over eight counties, and as a region where residents want to stay and outsiders want in, we will continue to grow. Tampa International Airport already serves more than 18 million passengers per year, most of whom are nonresident visitors, and it is expanding. We also have the 11th-largest media market in the country, just behind Boston and Atlanta but ahead of Phoenix and Miami. These are all telling signs that point to the need to start looking at transit not just as a social service, but as a means to an end. That end is access to jobs, which is clearly important to our regions continued success.

A key element to our success is for our Metropolitan Planning Organizations, the Florida Department of Transportation, TBARTA and our transit agencies to work together on filling transit gaps with immediate solutions, such as the TBARTA regional vanpool program, which can be expanded right now with little cost. Recognizing the benefits of and engaging in private sector collaboration will also maximize the use of our existing resources, making our dollars go further. Demonstration Bus Rapid Transit routes, as well as improvements in connections between transit services, are all possible through continued collaboration. Our first step is to recognize our region is greater than the sum of its parts, and that making incremental progress step by step will bring all the different pieces together. With persistence, we can begin to build a culture of transit that fits our unique characteristics, where commuters can begin to get out of their cars and bigger projects can move forward in the future.

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Ramond Chiaramonte is executive director of the Tampa Bay Regional Transportation Authority.