1. Opinion

Column: Where are the transportation visionaries in Tampa Bay?

Once again, the Hillsborough County Commission has proposed an inadequate transportation plan that will disappoint advocates and users of public transportation.

This so-called plan looked first for a source of money and then tailored minor transportation improvements to fit the income. The process was as flawed as is its outcome. In no way is this proposal a plan; it is a punt that avoids tackling the large, long-range transportation issues in our community. Perhaps the commission can fool themselves into thinking this road-repair, road-widening patch solves transportation needs. But informed people, especially those without cars, will recognize that it is only for show; it won't get us where we need to go.

Tampa Bay transportation issues are large and cannot be solved by a simplistic, local widening of some roads and repairs to others. This latest version is not a plan. It is routine maintenance and should be accomplished with existing revenues dedicated to transportation.

Several months ago, an anemic Go Hillsborough transportation plan failed because local government officials bickered over how much voters would be allowed to approve in increased fees or taxes to fund the plan. Short on support, Go Hillsborough also was short on improvements to transit. The plan was doomed because it lacked depth.

Any good regional or local transportation plan links the geographical elements of the community: business centers, the port, airport, universities, schools, football stadiums, tourist attractions and medical centers. In a large metropolitan area such as Hillsborough County, you must plan to use all methods of transportation available; roads alone are insufficient to move people and goods efficiently.

During my 10 years in the Florida Legislature, I chaired the appropriations subcommittee on transportation. This was when the Legislature passed the last comprehensive transportation plan for Florida. The plan evolved from working with local governments, environmentalists, port and airport representatives, road builders and as many different constituencies as we could reach. The process took months of negotiating with all the affected parties, especially local governments, to design a plan that everyone could agree upon. Only after there was consensus on the plan did the Legislature conceive the funding to fit the plan. Plan first, then fund what is needed.

Planning for transportation is rightfully at the local level, with the Florida Department of Transportation integrating local needs into the state plan. As an adjunct to the local Metropolitan Planning Organizations, the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority was created as the regional transportation planner. Although the public has paid for expensive planning consultants for these agencies, we are still waiting to see the results.

The TBX road-only option boasts of solving our transportation woes by widening I-275.

Disrupting two residential neighborhoods that have struggled to survive, having been split in half by the original building of the interstate, DOT delivers a new neighborhood wrecking ball, the Tampa Bay Express. Local planning authorities rolled over for the proposal, even though transportation planning should start at the local level with the state adopting the local plans, not the reverse. Unless local officials reject TBX, it is still viable despite strong public opposition.

The funding for TBX taxes local people three times to pay for a federal/state interstate highway. Consumers pay state and federal gasoline taxes. These two sources ordinarily cover interstate highway construction, with state revenue providing the match to federal revenue. But DOT will tax us again by charging tolls to come up with the state match. The failure by the Florida legislative leadership on transportation has, in effect, granted to DOT taxing authority through the toll mechanism. And toll roads place a heavier burden on the taxpayers as tolls are a more expensive option for funding, due to the costs associated with borrowing funds and paying interest on the loans.

Where are the bold elected and appointed officials who can envision transportation that meets the future needs of all of Hillsborough County and, better yet, the region? Where are the visionaries who understand we must have a comprehensive public transportation system composed of a combination of roads and public transportation? Who understands there is a large population of people who because of age, income, physical limitations or personal preference rely on public transportation?

Who are the leaders who have the vision and courage to build consensus, to promote a transportation system that fulfills the needs of the community?

Mary Figg is a Lutz resident who represented a Hillsborough County district in the Florida House from 1982 to 1992 and specialized in transportation issues.