Editorial: Failure to think big on transit

Published March 18, 2016

The same week that Tampa and St. Petersburg lost out on new federal transportation grants, two major bay area roadways — the Howard Frankland Bridge and the Veterans Expressway — were closed down because of traffic accidents. And the same thing happened the very next week, where on four of five workdays, bad weather or accidents shut the Sunshine Skyway bridge, the Howard Frankland and the Courtney Campbell Causeway. Not that Tampa's application for electric cars or St. Petersburg's application for gondolas would have mattered. And therein lies the problem.

The world doesn't always work in mysterious ways. The region's transportation system is a mess, but it's not only because voters in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties have rejected higher taxes in recent years to make new investments. It's also because local leaders don't focus on the basics, they make their plans in isolation, and they haven't been willing to work hard to make a convincing case why taxpayers should fork over even more.

The "Smart City Challenge" was not envisioned as a game changer for Tampa Bay, but it became a reflection of the region's shortcomings. The U.S. Transportation Department pledged $40 million to a city that best integrated new technology into its transportation network. That could include electric cars, sensors to direct traffic or other automated projects. And the grant targeted midsized cities. It was a chance for the bay area to shine and compete on a national level.

But Tampa took a kitchen-sink approach, offering everything from shuttles to solar charging stations for electric vehicles. St. Petersburg proposed a gondola line linking the Gateway area to downtown and the gulf beaches. From the 78 cities that applied, the DOT chose seven finalists — two more than expected. And if a common denominator stood out, it was that the winners had already invested in a modern transportation infrastructure. Austin, Denver, Portland and the other cities have built a spine for the 21 century, which is why they continue to move ahead.

The criteria for being selected included many intangibles, from the state of a city's mass transit system and a plan's likelihood of success to the "continuity of committed leadership" in the community. That's where this region continues to fall short. Last week, as news emerged that Tampa and St. Petersburg missed the cut, Hillsborough County commissioners seemed even more unsure about putting another transportation package to the voters in November. At Tampa City Hall, meanwhile, the City Council used its time to pass a resolution opposing the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal.

The region needs to break its reliance on a handful of bridges and the car, and it won't happen by tinkering around the edges. Local leaders need to think big and focus. The last few weeks have amplified the waste in time and money that comes from a dated transportation system. Losing the federal contest put a spotlight on the problem, too. But it's not a new picture.