The business community in Tampa Bay has long been far ahead of the region's political leadership on transit issues. A fact-finding trip to Charlotte last week reflects the critical role the private sector has to continue to play in laying the foundation for a better transportation system. Without business leaders demanding a robust regional transit approach, there is little motivation for most public officeholders to think about transformative change rather than their next election.
About 20 business leaders spent two days in Charlotte as part of a delegation organized by the Tampa Bay Partnership, a regional business group that has taken a prominent leadership role in addressing the area's transportation needs. The purpose was to discover how that North Carolina city built public support for a multimodal system of light rail, streetcar and buses, with the hope of applying those lessons and replicating that success in the bay area.
As a similar-sized Southern city, Charlotte offers some broad markers of how to proceed. While Charlotte's demographics are different, supporters there started by building a bipartisan coalition to support new transit investments. They envisioned an orderly build-out and ensured that the many moving parts in the transit system complemented rather than competed with each other. They sought to bridge the divide between urban residents who historically have supported mass transit and suburbanites who traditionally are more car-dependent and skeptical of huge expenditures for rail. And they made a strong argument for how a more modern transportation system would build Charlotte's economy and help it compete and attract talent in a globalized world.
These strategies are not new or particularly novel, but they are at the core of changing mindsets of how communities move people and goods, and they are themes that supporters need to return to time and time again in the run-up to any potential voter referendum on investing in transit. As Tampa attorney Rhea Law, chairwoman of the partnership, said, the key is communication, advocacy and education — on a sustained basis. Voters need to see the tangible benefits of investing in transit. Elected leaders need to make the issue a priority. And the business community needs to take a more active, public role in getting a transit initiative off the ground.
The partnership is playing an essential role, both in keeping transit on the public radar and in moving local and state agencies to address big-ticket regional needs. Political leaders on both sides of the bay have retreated in the wake of failed transit efforts in Hillsborough and Pinellas. The partnership has filled the gap with a focused blueprint for moving forward, recognizing the need for both roads and mass transit and conveying a sense of urgency in finding solutions. In a significant victory this spring, it helped persuade the Florida Legislature to overhaul the Tampa Bay Regional Transit Authority so that it will be the lead player for planning, implementing and operating a regional system.
That advocacy is especially needed in Hillsborough County, where county commissioners seem almost paralyzed in fear of the backlash anticipated from conservative voters to any new tax for mass transit. This will require new and emboldened leadership at all levels. Gov. Rick Scott, in Tampa on Monday to welcome new people-mover cars for Tampa International Airport, soured the transit climate in the region for years by killing the high-speed train between Tampa and Orlando. Business leaders need to keep making the case, but sooner rather than later elected officials need to take the baton. There is no practical way forward unless the public and private sectors get on the same page.