Pinellas to Launch Transit Task Force
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03/22/10 Kate Bradshaw
WMNF Drive-Time News Monday | Listen to this entire show:

As a penny transit tax referendum inches closer to the November ballot in Hillsborough County, some might wonder how, or even if, the rest of the Tampa Bay region is going to tackle public transit. Today, officials met in Largo to discuss a possible transit overhaul in Pinellas. They announced the formation of a task force to help make this idea a reality. Florida’s most densely populated county may have a thing or two to learn from another auto-dependent metro area.

Phoenix Community Alliance President Don Keuth has a math problem for mass transit’s naysayers.

We have population projections for the next 20-plus years of about two and a half million more people in the metropolitan area. And unless we change the ratio of people to cars, it could be about a million and a half more automobiles.

And what happens when you line up all those cars, bumper to bumper, in each direction on a four-lane highway?

And I asked people this question, how long is the traffic jam? And they usually, “Oh, 30 miles, 50 miles.” Six hundred and eighty-three miles.

Tampa Bay might not be a desert, but it does have some common ground with Phoenix. Both have seen rampant sprawl in recent decades. Both are facing declining revenue and climbing gas prices. But while one region saw a wildly successful debut of its light-rail system, the other ranks dead last for commuters. Keuth said light rail is helping the Phoenix region reinvent itself.

The sprawl is ended. We cannot sustain the kind of growth we were achieving, and sprawling into the desert, to the tune of an acre an hour in the height of the cycle. And we’re really looking internally, and we’re going to use things like light rail and others to enhance that.

The Tampa Bay area has seen two transit milestones this year. The first was President Barack Obama’s announcement that more than 1.2 billion dollar in stimulus money will help fund high-speed rail between Orlando and Tampa. The second was Hillsborough’s approval of language for a ballot question that would let voters decide on a penny tax to fund local transit—including light rail. Don Skelton of the Florida Department of Transportation said the trip shouldn’t end in Tampa.

We have to make sure that we connect areas like Pinellas County, Pasco County, other areas of the Tampa Bay region—both from a “How do you get people from high-speed rail to destinations—like the beaches, like businesses in Pinellas County?” And how do you get people from the Tampa area to high-speed rail?

Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority Director Tim Garling said most people in Pinellas want better transit.

What we’re finding is 81 percent of the residents of Pinellas County want more and improved transit.

Garling says he hopes the county’s bus system will better connect vital employment centers, add an airport stop, and eventually double its 12 million annual riders over the next decade. As for an overall vision for transit, including rail, Pinellas County Commissioner Karen Williams-Seel said the county will be forming a transportation task force this May to help assess the county’s transit needs.

Having 24 members of the civic and business community along with five elected officials, to work with the alternatives analysis, to look at all the plans that have been done to date. And then look at the different funding sources; conduct a series of many multiple community meetings throughout Pinellas County to gather everybody’s ideas and input. And then come back to the county commission with a plan for funded projects, a variety of projects, and to also recommend a funding source.

She said the county is seeking input from people of all walks, especially those from the higher-education sector. Stan Vittetoe, Provost of St. Petersburg College’s Clearwater campus, said that access to transit has a direct impact on enrollment.

*It’s not uncommon to have a student drop out of school because of car problems, or transportation issues. Their finances are that close. You might think that they would turn to the buses as an alternative. But I can tell you that students have told me that, “If I take a bus, sometimes my trip can be an hour and a half.”*

James Moore, Senior Vice President and Planner at HDR Engineering, said one way to improve transit is to design communities around public transit systems. He said places like Denver, Portland, Oregon, and parts of the Chicago area have adopted something called “transit-oriented development.”

They are designed to promote pedestrian movement. They are integrated into their surrounding neighborhood, surrounding context. … They reinforce the use of transit, and they gracefully accommodate other modes of mobility.

But before this type of development starts cropping up, the transit question would have to get on the Pinellas ballot. Williams-Seel said this could happen in either 2011 or 2012, depending on when the task force completes its report. She said that so far, she hasn’t seen the political opposition that Hillsborough has on transit.

Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe, who has been leading the county’s transit effort, said Pinellas shouldn’t worry about politics.

We’re going through our political challenges right now. My advice is, this is really about people. This is about the business community; this is about citizens who really look towards the need for transportation for economic development. So my advice to them is what they’re doing right here: engaging the business community. Because the business community sees the value of smart transportation.

Detractors of what would be a multi-decade project, like Hillsborough County Commissioner Jim Norman, have called Hillsborough’s transit aspirations a “boondoggle.” Some complain that many residents won’t see it come into full fruition, and have said, why bother? St. Pete College Clearwater Provost Stan Vittetoe said the answer to that lies in some of history’s greatest undertakings.

You know, I don’t care whether you’re thinking of a medieval cathedral or the rail line that connected the east and west halves of the United States. When you start that program, you can’t really expect to see the results right away. I think of those cathedrals that were built, and some of those people started, and it was several generations before they were finished. But they remain monuments to the vision, and the energy and drive, of the people who started them. And to me, I think that’s where the mass transit issue will be viewed someday, too.

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Don K. from Phoenix also said that now that their rail line is built, "the people are all over it and naysaysers are hard to find." In short, all of the same guff transit oppenents are tossing up here in the Tampa area, has been soundly proven wrong in Phoenix, and Denver... and Salt Lake City... and Charlotte... and Portland, etc.