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  1. Opinion

Editorial: More voices for regional Tampa Bay transit

A new study released last week by the Tampa Bay Partnership marks another fresh step in the years-old push to modernize the region's transportation system. The report calls for addressing transportation improvements by thinking and acting more from a regional perspective, a sharp departure from the history of three failed transit initiatives in Hillsborough and Pinellas in recent years. This report builds on the push in both counties to unify their transit and planning efforts, and the Florida Legislature could play a key role this spring if it responds to business leaders and local elected officials calling for action.

The report to the partnership, the bay area's job development arm, notes that a host of major issues, from transportation and crime to poverty, would be better confronted on a regional scale. That's certainly true for any major metropolitan area, and in this region the two counties have worked together in several major areas, from tourism to higher education to the development of drinking water resources.

But transportation planning has remained largely a county-by-county issue, following political boundaries that have no relation to the way people and goods move around Tampa Bay. The report found that the bay area's county-centric transportation structure, dating to the 1970s, is "out of step" with the times, resulting in "too many local projects competing for too little money" and running counter to new state and federal policies that encourage a metro-wide approach.

The study, by the Eno Center for Transportation, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, found an "urgent need for leaders in metropolitan Tampa Bay to put forth a strategic — yet grounded and pragmatic — approach to planning regional transportation" that furthered the area's economy and quality of life. It suggested merging the separate planning organizations in Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties into a regional agency and creating a single structure to manage transit operations in the three counties. While the state created the Tampa Bay Regional Transportation Authority a decade ago to take a lead on these issues, the study noted that TBARTA has made just a modest contribution. Building awareness of the region is one thing. Building a collaborative governing structure with real authority, significant funding and real responsibility is another.

The proposal aligns with the major tenets of a plan pushed by Pinellas County Commission chair Janet Long and supported by officials on both sides of the bay that would consolidate the bay area's transportation agencies. And it builds on the collaborations that are already under way between the local mass transit providers in Pinellas and Hillsborough. A regional approach would make the bay area more competitive for state and federal transit aid, and it would stretch local dollars further by taking advantage of the economies of scale that come with centralizing operations.

There are still many serious questions to resolve. How would officials prevent a region-wide approach from overwhelming smart decisions on local service? How would local and regional planning survive without being mired in a new alphabet soup of bureaucracy? And how does the region confront its leading problem: the refusal by voters outside the urban centers to tax themselves for transportation improvements and the inability of city residents to do so?

But it's clear the time has come for a change in thinking. The bay area has nearly tripled in size since its transportation structure was designed four decades ago. About 20 percent of all workers — a quarter-million people in the Tampa Bay metro area — travel outside their home county to work. Since 1970, the share of poor residents living in the suburbs has increased by 25 percent, second-highest among major metro areas. And the suburbs continue to suffer poor mass transit service.

But local officials cannot create a robust metro transit authority with regional service by themselves. They need help from the Legislature, and that should come this spring. The Florida Department of Transportation is expected to include a study of these Tampa Bay issues in its 2017-18 budget for lawmakers to approve. That's fine, but how many more studies about regional cooperation on transit are needed before real action is taken?

The region took on a similar challenge in the 1990s as local governments chose to end the water wars and to develop new drinking water sources in a more cooperative and sustainable manner. This study is the latest call for a common approach that makes common sense. It also provides a pathway for bringing a stronger transit referendum to the voters, which is where this entire discussion needs to lead.