It's not your imagination. Tampa Bay's roads are busier and more congested than ever. As these numbers show, nearly 100,000 commuters leave Hillsborough and the same number leave Pasco each morning for work in another county. A larger percentage of workers leave their home county for jobs than ever before. That's why Tampa Bay needs a regional approach to solve its road woes and to create meaningful mass transit.
The Florida Department of Transportation reversed itself nearly overnight this month after local officials, reacting to a Tampa Bay Times report, called for the DOT to cancel plans to transfer a free lane to a toll lane on a new span of the Howard Frankland Bridge.
The about-face reflected the political clout of state Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, a critic who is the incoming chairman of the Senate's Appropriations Committee. More broadly, the reversal spoke to the numbers of people and policymakers caught off guard by the toll. For them, replacing a free lane with a toll on an already congested bridge would only make matters worse, just as more people are relying on the area's major roads and bridges to get to and from work.
Regionalism is not simply a slogan; in the Tampa Bay area, it's a way of life. And it's a trend that will continue — and grow. Consider these facts from the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority. In 2010, about 260,500 workers in the eight-county area in the region crossed county lines for their employment. By 2014, that figure jumped to 423,878, an increase of nearly 63 percent.
The proportion of those crossing county lines for work increased in all eight area counties, and in four — Hillsborough, Polk, Citrus and Sarasota — the percentage of the workforce crossing their home counties at least doubled. A majority (54 percent) of Pasco commuters crossed county lines for work in 2014.
These are the patterns for working and commuting in the modern age, and that trend is only expected to continue. The eight-county region of the greater bay area will grow to a projected 5.9 million people by 2040, a 32 percent increase from the current 4.4 million. That will put entirely new pressures on the region's already lagging transportation grid.
With tens of thousands of area commuters crossing county lines every day, it's time for Tampa Bay to speak with a united voice on the need to modernize its transit system — not only its roads — and to create meaningful mass transit that works for commuters. The DOT's change of mind on the Howard Frankland toll lane is a lesson in how the community can shape if not entirely control its transportation future. That is critically important to a region that encompasses 46 cities and about 4,400 square miles, that is served by three airports, three seaports and seven mass transit agencies, and that has planned multibillion-dollar investments in its highways, byways and bridges.
TBARTA is doing its part by hosting programs that pool car, van and bicycle commuters. All these actions — major spending by public agencies, individuals planning ahead — are needed to ensure the transportation grid can keep up. As these numbers show, it will be a challenge in the coming years that will test the public's resolve for growing the region in a responsible way.
Commuters leaving each county
By percentage and total number