Old study could have new results for Pinellas transit

05/14/12 Janelle Irwin
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Officials from across the Tampa Bay area are pushing a long-term plan that links transit to population density. Results from a study discussed this morning at a meeting in Pinellas Park shows some challenges for officials in Pinellas County who want to expand transit options. Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council’s Avera Wynne said to make that and the spending that comes with it a reality regions need to increase their population density.

“Conventional wisdom is that you need certain densities to make transit work effectively. So, you don’t have to have the entire region be compact or densely populated, but if you have certain transit oriented areas – around the station areas – you can put a lot of density in a small area and then that will support the transit.”

But according to the 2010 census, Pinellas is already Florida’s densest county with more than 3300 people per square mile. That could make expanding a population that actually dropped a half percent from 2000 to 2010 a difficult feat. Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council is one of six groups sponsored what was called a “reality check” in 2007. Wynne said the results could offer some answers.

“At the Tampa Convention Center we had 32 game boards that were about 7-foot by 8-foot and then we had, per table, 1400 Legos. Two thirds of them represented housing and where people lived and one third of them, the red Legos, were for commercial or employment and the participants were asked to place the Legos where they thought development should go in the future. They had enough Legos to represent, essentially, a doubling of the population and we told them to think that this will be coming to the region over the next 40-50 years.”

Then the sampling of professionals, elected officials and common citizens connected those building blocks with transit.

“We used Orange ribbon and Purple ribbon to represent transportation corridors. Roadways, they could either create new roadways, new corridors or enhance existing ones and/or show us transit corridors. Sort of connect the Legos if you will. People put the Legos where they wanted to see additional development and then they showed us the corridors where they thought, either by automobile or mixed mode and transit to connect the population and jobs.”

Not much has been done to implement the ideas that were batted around five years ago. But Pinellas County is considering a mass transit connection between three of its busiest areas – Clearwater, the Gateway area around Raymond James and downtown St. Pete. Their proposed plans also include future options to connect those routes to Tampa. Planners anticipate using a county tax swap that would replace taxes on property with a 1% sales tax to pay for the improvements. Even though a referendum hasn’t been decided on, the no tax for tracks campaign signs have already started going up. But Pasco County Commissioner Jack Mariano said he thinks that opposition can be overcome.

“I mean, if we plan ahead and put the right infrastructure in place it will be a lot less expensive for the citizens that are being here, that are here, as well as the ones that are coming here and it’s got some great long-term benefits. I think when people see government taking the right step for the right actions it’s good and if we do it together as opposed to doing it disjointed, we will be better off.”

The 2007 study was done by a group called OneBay. They work with groups like Tampa Bay Partnership and the Urban Land Institute as a sort of think tank to grow the Tampa Bay region. And that’s where Mariano said the planning council comes in.

“I think as it comes forward, as this Tampa Bay Regional Planning becomes an integral part as far as bringing OneBay forward – working with the partnership and possibly TBARTA down the road – to bring a plan together.”

The idea is to expand on what Hillsborough tried to do in 2010 and what Pinellas is hoping to do within the next couple of years. Wynne said there were six main things taken away from the Lego experiment including the need for growth to be environmentally sustainable.

“Second one was creating jobs through a sustainable economic development by creating quality communities, supporting increased diversity in housing so we want a lot of options. We want low-density options. We want high-density options and we want to make sure those are linked to employment. The recommendation was encouraging compact and mixed use development. The fifth one, promote transit and transit oriented development and finally, encouraging preservation of open space and agricultural land. And all of these can be done through a good land use planning and transportation planning and natural resource planning.”

But the bottom line, and what the planning council emphasizes, is that local governments in the region aren’t in competition with each other. They’re competing with other urban areas like Atlanta and Charlotte. Pasco County’s Mariano said transportation needs to be a part of a growing community.

“You protect your investment that you have to make to actually build resources as far as getting your water, your sewer and your roads. You’re going to have a shorter trip length which improves the quality of life for citizens.”

The OneBay reality check study doesn’t have any specific actionable items and the findings that transit needed to be improved didn’t even specify how exactly. But the link between population density and the need for infrastructure is something planners hope will start to catch on as a result of the study.

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