Regional transit in Tampa Bay is getting an updated vision

04/26/13 Janelle Irwin
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The board coordinating transit agencies from all over the Tampa Bay area is updating its master plan this year. The Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority discussed the changes during its meeting Friday. Even though the board considers the update minor, it includes opportunities for increased regional connectivity.

Much of the focus will be on making it easier to get between Pinellas and Hillsborough Counties. Bob Clifford is TBARTA’s executive director.

“If you look at the Westshore business district and the Gateway business district that are separated by the Howard Franklin bridge, but if you put them together and you look at them from employment numbers and square footage, one of the largest in the entire Southeastern United States only behind Atlanta.”

But rush hour congestion on the Howard Frankland Bridge is a nightmare. The regional transportation group’s plan would focus heavily on fixing that by incorporating managed lanes. That could be anything from high occupancy vehicle lanes to a pay-per-use route that would bypass the stuffed up junction to Kennedy Boulevard and Tampa International Airport. Transit officials in Pinellas County are working on a separate fix that would connect the two counties by rail.

“We want to have our plans done and completed in a comprehensive package in 2013 – the year we’re in now – and then the county commission will vote again at the end of this year to officially place this Greenlight Pinellas plan on the ballot and then 2014 will be left to an advocacy campaign.”

That’s Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority CEO Brad Miller. Greenlight Pinellas is the name given to a campaign to educate Pinellas County voters about a 2014 ballot measure that would swap its property tax revenue for a 1% sales tax increase. Their plans for the money would save PSTA from becoming insolvent by 2017 and would also fund plans for light rail connecting downtown St. Pete to the Gateway area and Clearwater as well as increased bus service.

“This is not about increasing ridership on transit, even though that seems to be happening, or about growing PSTA or something like that, this is about helping Pinellas County and the cities in Pinellas County and so we’re changing the discussion to talking about land use and transit-oriented development. Pinellas County is some 94% built out. It has no room to continue to grow and develop that way. How is the county going to redevelop?”

Earlier this month TBARTA held five evenings of telephone town hall meetings in all of the area’s counties. Clifford, the group’s executive director, says more than 40,000 respondents from all over the area expressed different needs. In Hillsborough, residents are looking for more transit and mobility services. Pinellas residents want more off-hour service on nights and weekends. Residents in Sarasota and Bradenton counties want more connectivity while the economy is more of a focus in Citrus.

“A common theme, but somewhat different – there was a huge issue with them related the issue of transportation and how it affects the issue of jobs and access to jobs and the economic side of it. It focused, as you would expect, a lot on the major corridor plan coming into Citrus County of the Suncoast Parkway.”

And the town hall meetings revealed another theme.

“I think we heard every night the issue of: can I get to a Rays game and can I get to Tampa International Airport? We’ve heard that for five years now. We hear that over and over again from everybody. Those two - I tell people constantly, we hear that – it’s the number one question we hear.”

Clifford breezed through a prepared presentation with little input from board members. One member of the public spoke. Hamilton Hanson vocally opposed Hillsborough County’s failed 2010 transit referendum and says he plans to be a driving force in the push to kill any rail prospects in Pinellas County too.

“You’re not getting to the people who are really the stakeholders and I appreciate the number of people who called in, I appreciate the number of answers, but we’ve got huge millions of people in this area that are not responding which is an indication they’re not interested – we don’t need it for them. Now, on the other hand … I appreciate the fact that you as an individual are looking ahead and we need to look ahead, we don’t need to have rail jammed down our throats for millions of dollars.”

But TBARTA’s Clifford earlier emphasized the need to keep looking toward the future with open options.

“In 2050 we talked about long distance rail. Well, is it rail in 2050? It might not be, but we know it’s going to be premium transit. We know we need that connectivity. So, we want to make sure we’re including that kind of thinking in the overall plan.”

The TBARTA board will vote on the master transportation plan at its next meeting, on June 14th. It will also include improvements to the region’s freight network and roads.

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It is widely assumed that Pinellas will swap its current property tax for a new 1 cent sales tax that would allow it to maintain and expand services, but that is not a done deal. There is a case to be made that keeping both sources of revenue may be the most prudent course to achieve the full range of transportation options desired.