Moving forward on transportation means leaving PTC behind

Mark Sharpe and the Tampa Innovation Alliance have proposed using Fowler Avenue as a driverless-car route.
Mark Sharpe and the Tampa Innovation Alliance have proposed using Fowler Avenue as a driverless-car route.
Published Jan. 27, 2017

There are few people happier than former Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe to see the Public Transportation Commission under siege. His only disappointment likely is that he doesn't get to cast the deciding vote that puts the agency out of the regulating game for good.

Sharpe has long considered the PTC to be (paraphrasing here) an obstructionist, monopolistic bunch of Neanderthals determined to keep the county under control of its teeny, tiny thumb.

There is increasing legislative pressure to abolish the PTC, and Sharpe is giddy.

"This is perfect timing. You can't have these picayune agencies like the PTC trying to strangle innovation in transportation that is coming at us like a freight train," he told me. "My goal is nothing less than a radical transformation of the way transportation is done here."

I called Sharpe, who now serves as executive director of the Tampa Innovation Alliance, to get his thoughts about the PTC. Well, I got them — and a lot more. When he gets going it can be hard to keep up. This column would become a 10-part series if I mentioned all the things we covered.

But here's a nugget: The alliance has asked the federal Department of Transportation to designate Fowler Avenue near the University of South Florida as a driverless vehicle testing ground.

Why Fowler Avenue?

It's a busy and sometimes dangerous road heavily used by 49,000 USF students, along with faculty and staff. Leaving the campus for an appointment or even lunch is an iffy proposition, given that it means vacating a parking space. If you have been there, you know what I mean.

Sharpe sees a future where people get around in ways that don't involve personal cars. If you followed the comings and goings of how the PTC fought hard against Uber and Lyft, you know why Sharpe is frustrated.

"My mission is to make Fowler the safest, most technically advanced street in the country," he said.

Here's the best part: Sharpe's vision for the USF area doesn't require a massive, taxpayer-supported project. The amount of public dough needed to support large-scale transportation systems has always been the biggest point of contention for opponents.

Sharpe's idea does require a new way of thinking, though, and working with companies like Uber and Lyft. The PTC's determination to bring them under the same regulations as cab companies was a major sticking point.

"The future of transportation isn't just metal on wheels," he said. "It's tech. We need to have as many vehicles on the road as possible that aren't privately owned. We want the university area to own this issue."

Parts of that future are here already.

One of the big gripes about bus service in the county is what planners call the first mile/last mile. In other words, how does someone who might live a couple of miles from the bus stop get there? When the work day is done, how do they get home once they are dropped off from the bus?

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Through an app called HyperLINK, riders living or working within three miles of the bus stop can summon a ride for $3 that gets them to and from the pick-up and drop-off point.

"That service is available now in the Brandon, Carrollwood and University areas," HART government affairs director Cesar Hernandez said.

That's one piece of many needed to address Tampa's long-term transportation needs. More pieces are on the way.

For Sharpe, though, it starts with the PTC going away. If only he could cast the deciding vote. It would be entertaining.