Column: Tampa Bay needs one powerful voice on transportation

The heavily traveled bridges that link the Tampa Bay area are just a part of our transit problem.
The heavily traveled bridges that link the Tampa Bay area are just a part of our transit problem.
Published May 6, 2016

Over the past 15 years, about $7 billion from the state and federal governments has been invested in transit or highway solutions in Tampa Bay. While there is no doubt that much has been accomplished, could it be time to rethink the governance model to produce more meaningful and efficient results?

The list of agencies charged with developing transportation solutions for our community is long, and the acronyms can make for a messy alphabet soup: the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council, Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority, Transportation Management Area, Tampa-Hillsborough County Expressway Authority, Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority, Hillsborough Area Regional Transit, the Florida Department of Transportation and both the Pinellas and Hillsborough Metropolitan Planning Organizations. Who can find a clear voice between the TBRPC and TBARTA, or PSTA and HART, or FDOT and the MPOs?

There are more than 100 members of these boards — elected officials and business and civic leaders. In addition to the dizzying number of acronyms for these groups, the redundancies and overlap in responsibilities are holding our region back from developing real, tangible transportation solutions.

We need one robust, regional transit group that can set priorities and speak with one voice. And it is way past time for our elected officials, community leaders and business leaders to exert renewed leadership for our region on this issue.

In recent years, voters in both Pinellas and Hillsborough counties have rejected sales tax increases to improve our region's transportation infrastructure and mobility options. The high-profile failures of the tax referendums have led some to believe that there has been a failure to communicate the importance that increased funding sources play in developing effective transportation solutions for Tampa Bay. That may be in large part due to a lack of coordination among the numerous agencies charged with developing cohesive and creative solutions.

Transportation is a priority and concern for our residents. Recently, the Pinellas County Citizen Survey conducted by an independent pollster showed that the availability of public transit, traffic flow on major roads and road improvements fall below the expectations of our residents. Similar studies in Hillsborough County have shown the same results. Business leaders tell us that a major impediment to expanding their operations and recruiting new operations to the Tampa Bay area to create more jobs is the lack of transportation options in the foreseeable future. It is time to consolidate these transportation planning organizations to increase their operational efficiencies, speak with one voice and develop region-wide transportation solutions for our residents and visitors.

Achieving that goal won't be easy, and it will take considerable effort in both Hillsborough and Pinellas counties and in Tallahassee. The bus systems should be merged, for example, and so should the two Metropolitan Planning Organizations. TBARTA, which was created by the Legislature, has no sustainable funding and covers too much territory. All of these difficult issues have to be addressed.

It is past time to bring our region under one Tampa Bay regional transit authority that develops a collaborative and collective message and delivers a range of services to all people regardless of which side of the bay they work or live. The time is now for planning agencies to collaborate on mobility solutions and to discuss the advantages of merging organizations to achieve real partnerships across municipal and county lines. The parochial and independent nature of some of these collaborative agencies has contributed in great part to our struggles as a region when it comes to transportation.

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We have studied our region's transportation options to death. Now is the time to take concrete steps to consolidate our many transportation organizations and work as one Tampa Bay for tangible results.

Janet Long has served on the Pinellas County Commission since 2012 and is a former state legislator and member of the Seminole City Council. She serves on the boards of the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority, the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority and the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council.