The Florida Senate gave a vital boost Thursday to Tampa Bay's efforts to modernize its outdated and inefficient transportation system. The Senate reworked a bill to put the region on stronger footing to address its transportation problems, from chronic road congestion and poor mass transit to the lack of regional commuting options. Despite a misguided effort by two bay area senators to hijack the measure, the full Senate is poised to approve the revised version today and send it to the House.
Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, and area business leaders put the bill into motion, recognizing the need to jump-start transportation planning in the region. The bill, SB 1672, would rename the Tampa Bay Regional Transportation Authority by replacing "transportation" with "transit," an acknowledgement of the role buses, rail and other options need to play along with roads in addressing the region's congestion problems. It would reduce the number of TBARTA member-governments to the core counties of Tampa Bay, where urban congestion is worse. And it would give the agency more direction and a greater sense of urgency in planning, building and operating new transit modes throughout the region.
Two Tampa Bay Republicans — Sens. Tom Lee of Thonotosassa and Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg — nearly poisoned the effort last week. They added requirements that any proposed rail project be subject to yet another feasibility study and be approved by the planning boards in each county and the Legislature. They also added Hernando County back into the mix and barred TBARTA from advocating for rail. These were all attempts to make it harder to craft a rail plan and build public support for it before anyone decides whether rail is the best option rather than express buses and other alternatives.
Latvala largely repaired the damage Thursday. He rewrote portions of the bill to clarify that approvals by the county planning boards and the Legislature are needed only for state funding of rail projects, leaving TBARTA free to work on its own for any federal or local matching dollars. He also removed the requirement that the Legislature give its blessing for rail "by an act of general law," which removes another avenue for rail opponents to undermine the effort. And Latvala loosened the gag order on TBARTA so it would be free under existing state law to offer "factual information" on any rail proposal. Elected officials on TBARTA's board still would be free to advocate for what they thought best for the community.
Hernando County still doesn't belong in TBARTA at the moment. Also, the feasibility study and other hoops are added layers that duplicate the existing process of applying for funds for rail (or buses, driverless vehicles or other transit options). But Latvala has mitigated the mischief created by Lee and Brandes, and with the legislative session ending a week from today it's better to move forward and not make the perfect the enemy of the good.
Credit the business community for stepping up to ensure this legislation did not get sidetracked. The Tampa Bay Partnership has been a major player behind the scenes; some of its most influential business leaders went to Tallahassee last week and made it clear that this legislation is a high priority for the entire region. After meeting with them, Brandes told the Times editorial board has "no problem with a regional plan" and was only trying to fill in some specifics. That sounds implausible given his deep dislike of light rail, but Brandes did not say a word Thursday when Latvala smoothed over his speed bumps.
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After the Senate approves the bill today, it will be up House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, to ensure the House approves the legislation next week and sends it to the governor. It's easy for bills to conveniently get lost in the shuffle in the session's final days, and Tampa Bay cannot afford to wait any longer to create a robust regional transit authority.