The desperate need to improve Tampa Bay's outdated transportation system has dominated the civic discussion for the past several years, and there are encouraging signs of progress. All of the major players — state and local governments, activists and the business community — finally seem to have open minds, fresh ideas and seats at the table. A bill filed by two Tampa lawmakers that will be considered during the legislative session that begins Tuesday could provide more help — if it does not allow the Legislature to dictate local priorities or to predetermine which transit options are best.
The legislation sponsored by Sen. Dana Young and Rep. James Grant, both Tampa Republicans, would take $60 million from state passenger rail projects and redirect the money to build "alternative transportation systems." Those systems could include autonomous vehicles, rideshare operations such as Uber and Lyft and other emerging technologies. Tampa Bay and Miami-Dade would receive $25 million apiece of the $60 million, with the remaining $10 million going to other counties, provided that the county matches the money dollar-for-dollar.
The legislation (SB 1200/HB 535) is vague about how a new statewide "alternative transportation authority" would achieve its mission "to move the greatest number of people in the least amount of time." Yet the bill is encouraging in several ways. It would amount to a recognition by the Legislature that Tampa Bay's transportation problems are so significant they require a game-altering change in policy. It recognizes the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transit Authority as the lead agency for constructing new regional connections, building on the Legislature's smart move last in year in giving TBARTA more authority. It brings real money to the table. And it sends a message — in the wake of significant state support for rail projects in South and Central Florida — that it's Tampa Bay's turn.
However, the legislation doesn't by itself present a clear path forward. By ignoring light rail in favor of autonomous cars and other transit modes that are not defined, it could undermine rather than help the search for a regional consensus on transit. Driverless vehicles could be a practical option — or not. Would the system be a glorified tram, and if so, on what scale would this people-mover operate? It is too early to commit huge sums to any single transit mode. The state is only now examining a range of options for improving regional connectivity, and light rail remains a leading option. But even the earliest recommendations won't come before this fall. By restricting money to a certain transit mode, the legislation gets ahead of the planning process. The legislation also provides for construction money but not operating money, a major drawback to expanding mass transit in the region. And there is the question of why state tax dollars should be used to finance, publicize and promote a transportation system that may include the rideshare industry, which has access to the private capital markets on its own.
Young and Grant are right to recognize the state's interest and obligation to help improve transportation in the largest metro region on the west coast of Florida. But the Legislature's effort should be in sync with the planning already under way, and the decisions about which options to fund, how and when should be made in conversations with state and local officials and the public, not predetermined by state lawmakers. There is time to get this right, and dictating the outcome from Tallahassee would be a terrible mistake.