For frustrated drivers stuck in traffic throughout Tampa Bay, the gridlock over mass transit improvements seems never-ending. It's been six years since voters defeated a transit referendum in Hillsborough and two years since voters did the same in Pinellas — and a new plan to bring to voters has not emerged on either side of the bay. Yet there are encouraging signs that business and political leaders recognize the lack of a viable transit system is suffocating Tampa Bay and that the status quo is unacceptable.
A "State of Transit" summit recently hosted by the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority drew a large crowd of politicians and business officials to downtown Tampa to raise awareness and discuss options. The conversation ranged from the worthy experiment with running ferries between downtown Tampa and St. Petersburg to the obvious need for more robust rapid bus service to the role of Uber and other ridesharing services. To his credit, Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik also continues reinforcing that light rail has to be part of the mix even as other summit speakers focused on other options.
In Pinellas, County Commissioner Janet Long and St. Petersburg City Council member Jim Kennedy are pursuing another needed conversation about how to speak with one regional voice on transportation. The federal government is expected to soon insist on one regional set of transportation priorities for funding like those provided by metro areas such as Denver, Seattle and Minneapolis-St. Paul. Long and Kennedy are exploring how to create a new regional authority for Tampa Bay that could embrace one broad transportation plan and set funding priorities so the signals to Washington and Tallahassee would be clear.
And in Tallahassee next spring, expect another push from Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman and others to let cities hold transit tax referendums rather than requiring those votes to be countywide. The 2010 Hillsborough referendum was supported by voters in Tampa, and the 2014 Pinellas referendum won its strongest support among St. Petersburg voters.
In the glass is half-full vision, there is a broader consensus developing in the public and private sectors that Tampa Bay cannot fulfill its potential or compete with other metro areas without a more robust transit system. These points appear to be clear:
• Tampa Bay has to speak with one voice and agree on one transit plan for the region, even if it takes rule changes from the federal government to force that to happen.
• The Florida Legislature will play an essential role in creating the framework and providing the money. The region should capitalize on the leadership of incoming House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes; Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, the incoming Senate Appropriations Committee chairman; and Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, a rising star and likely future House speaker. Any significant change — from merging the Hillsborough and Pinellas bus systems to creating a new regional transit authority to allowing transit referendums by cities — would require action from the Legislature.
• It's going to take multiple approaches to meet this challenge, from better bus service to express highway lanes to light rail.
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In the glass is half-empty category, these are the depressing realities:
• The outlines of how a regional transportation authority could be organized, from its geographic footprint to the composition of its board to its funding, remain fuzzy.
• Too many public officials still lag behind private business leaders in acknowledging the urgency of the issue and agreeing that mass transit including light rail, not more roads, is the long-range solution.
• The earliest another voter referendum could be held on a new transit plan may be 2020. That's how long it likely will take for any structural changes to transit oversight to be adopted, a premium transit study by the state and HART to be completed, and a new transit vision to be created and sold to voters.
For Tampa Bay commuters, the transit answer always seems up the road and around the corner, never out of mind but always out of sight.