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  1. Opinion

Editorial: Booming downtowns in Tampa, St. Petersburg need better transit

The five biggest development projects in decades will move ahead this year, reshaping the look and economy of Tampa’s urban core. They share a common feature: The need for a robust mass transit system to reach their full potential.
The five biggest development projects in decades will move ahead this year, reshaping the look and economy of Tampa’s urban core. They share a common feature: The need for a robust mass transit system to reach their full potential.

The five biggest development projects in decades will move ahead this year, reshaping the look and economy of Tampa's urban core. They share a common feature: The need for a robust mass transit system to reach their full potential.

The long-awaited plans are coming to fruition as residents nationwide are moving back to the cities, taking the opportunity to live and work in the same urban area, reduce expenses to maintain cars, and enjoy restaurants, museums and other urban attractions.

Projects that will progress in Tampa this year:

• The housing authority's Encore project is creating new affordable housing, retail, parks and offices, revitalizing a barren northeast part of downtown.

• Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik announced a plan last month to remake 40 acres near the Amalie Arena, creating a new entertainment, residential and commercial core in the Channel District.

• City and housing authority agencies are redeveloping 120 acres along the Hillsborough River, with plans for new shops, apartments and parks that will extend the downtown core west.

• On downtown's north end, developers are refashioning the waterfront in the Tampa Heights area, reconnecting the historic neighborhood with a thriving new bustle of downtown parks and restaurants.

• The billion-dollar remake of Tampa International Airport, which kicked off in November, is the latest catalyst to make the West Shore area a truly mixed-use community.

These projects will involve some $3 billion or more in direct spending, creating thousands of new apartments and homes, more than 1 million square feet of office space, several hundred thousand square feet of retail, a new downtown medical school, waterfront parks and docks, and new shops, hotels and town-square settings. The thousands of new jobs and millions in new tax revenue will create a buzz in the downtown core and a new sense of character and vitality in the metro region.

But residents are not moving here to buy cars and sit in traffic as they navigate the few blocks in these new urban villages. And businesses in the urban core are looking for efficient and reliable ways to get their employees and goods around. This new vision for Tampa requires a change in transportation planning, and it starts with building stronger bus and trolley routes and laying the foundation for light rail.

While Pinellas County's situation is slightly different, the long-term mass transit challenge remains the same. Voters soundly rejected the Greenlight Pinellas referendum last year that would have created a better bus system and built a light rail line from downtown St. Petersburg to downtown Clearwater. But the desperate need for a viable transit system remains, and elected officials and business leaders should not give up. Downtown St. Petersburg is alive with restaurants and the arts, and new apartments and condos are planned or under construction. But to attract corporate headquarters downtown is going to require better transit. In mid Pinellas, the Gateway area is also booming. But the area is choked with traffic, and it needs a transit connection to St. Petersburg and Tampa's West Shore area to ensure its long-term future.

The downtowns on both sides of the bay are on a roll, and the years ahead are promising. But modern metro areas need strong mass transit, and addressing that need must remain a top priority for Tampa Bay.

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