Now that government and business leaders throughout Tampa Bay are talking about consolidating the decisionmaking process for regional transportation planning, it's little surprise that some voices would still try to protect their parochial interests rather than embrace the big picture. Consolidating the Metropolitan Planning Organizations in the bay area into a single voice that serves the entire region makes sense. This is not reinventing the wheel, and there are ways to ensure that local transportation priorities are not lost in a new structure that would amplify the region's voice.
MPOs are public boards that oversee transportation planning at the local level. They also serve as conduits for financing major transportation projects with the state and federal governments. Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties each have their own MPO — which is two too many — and area officials met last month to consider merging all three into a single agency. This effort is long overdue, and it's another key step in putting the pieces in place to create a modern regional transit system.
Yet Beth Alden, the executive director of Hillsborough's MPO, says a merger could cause more problems than it would solve. She contends it could create funding disputes, lead to a reduction in professional planning staffs and ultimately reduce public input on transportation policy at the local level. Some critics also complain that a regional MPO would crowd out the priorities of individual counties, leaving local transit projects at the mercy of a board more focused on moving traffic across county lines.
Some of these concerns may be legitimate. But there are ways to design a regional MPO that can walk and chew gum at the same time. The individual MPOs already consider county-centric transportation planning with an eye toward the impact on the larger region; that's the reality of living in a growing area of 3 million residents with thousands of commuters who cross county lines every day. But the current system breaks down at the point of integrating local and regional projects. Having three MPOs also dilutes the region's voice in competing for outside dollars and allows officials in every county to blame the others for not contributing to regional solutions. Rather than become a distraction, a regional MPO would be the common voice for addressing the region's mobility problems, from the first mile to the last. It also would be the unified voice Tampa Bay needs to build consensus and seek the financing for regional transit projects that are critical to the economic futures of every county.
Tampa Bay has risen to the regional challenge before. Thirty years ago, the area was at war with itself over water, with counties battling over scarce resources and blaming each other for groundwater withdrawals that were damaging lakes, rivers and property. Those wars led to the creation of Tampa Bay Water, a regional utility serving Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties. Though the agency has had its setbacks, Tampa Bay Water has become a fine example for regional cooperation. By focusing on conservation, it also has helped the region to grow responsibly. It's time to apply that same forward-looking approach to the region's transportation problems.
The director of Pinellas' MPO, Whit Blanton, said several of Alden's concerns are valid. But he says those issues can be addressed and that "a regional MPO is probably what we need here." Major metros across the country have recognized the value in this approach, and state and federal officials have complained for years that it is difficult to help Tampa Bay solve its regional transportation issues when there are so many voices with different opinions and different priorities. It's time to create a strong, regional transportation voice for Tampa Bay.