TBARTA: public transit faces cuts in funding, spike in demand listen05/06/11 Kate Bradshaw
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Public transit is clearly a tough sell in Florida these days, though skyrocketing gas prices are making the case for alternative transportation. Facing increases in demand and decreases in funding, transit officials may have to do more with less.
The state legislature created Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority, known commonly as TBARTA, in 2007, when times were different. Facing cuts in state funding, executive director Bob Clifford said the organization is poised to be another casualty of the 2011 legislative session.
"It looks like it's $150 million out of the trust fund and about a $10 billion loss out of the trust fund over the last 4 years. This would continue that trend."
On Monday, some members of the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority Board, or HART pushed for the shelving of that agencyâ€™s alternatives analysis. Itâ€™s a very detailed study determining the viability of modes like light rail and is required to secure federal matching dollars. Clifford said if the as-yet unfinished study were to stop in its tracks, TBARTAâ€™s overarching mission wouldnâ€™t be deeply affected.
"One of the things we've been looking at is looking at the various projects out into the future and answering the questions of what is it, where is it, how much does it cost, when do we do it? That's a little bit different than their very specitific alternatives analysis which is necessary to move forward for funding. We're really taking a step back a little bit earlier piece, answering those first questions, they were on that next level."
News of the rail studyâ€™s potential slowdown comes the same week Floridians got word that some federal money that would have funded high speed rail in the state â€“ had governor scott not shot down the project â€“ are now going to Illinois. TBARTA Board member Sonny Vergara said there may be a perfect storm when it comes to support for transit in Tampa Bay, but the agency still needs to press ahead.
"Our biggest challenge is funding. What's going to be the future of TBARTA? Not so much TBARTA, but how is TBARTA going to achieve it's mission? That's really the issue."
The agencyâ€™s mission is to create a region-wide transportation master plan that would cover the transit needs of seven Tampa Bay area counties in the coming decades. These are Pinellas, Hillsborough, Manatee, Sarasota, Citrus, Hernando, and Pasco Counties. The plan includes light rail and bus enhancements. Such public transit modes have less-than-enthusiastic political and economic support. TBARTA Board Chair Ronnie Duncan said thereâ€™s something that seems lost on the public â€“ that is, the fact that roads arenâ€™t free.
"Somebody pays for it and the maintenance of those roads are not free. Somebody's paying for them. So the notion that this new transportation system would be a new cost, it's really not an accurate statement. I think part of our mission is and part of our responsibility is to tell the story, all the story. Not just the story relative to transit."
The board agreed that public outreach on this point is key. TBARTA executive director Bob Clifford said greater support for public transit may grow on its own this summer as gas prices get increasingly nauseating.
"The issue of $4 a gallon gas is affecting people every day. I will tell you right now our phones are ringing off the hook in our office. People looking for solutions, looking for assistance, looking for help."
Transit officials say the economy has already upped the demand for public transit. In recent months, agencies like the HART have been consistently breaking ridership records. Clifford said his office has been flooded with calls about TBARTAâ€™s Vanpool program.
"We presently have, it's 80 something vans on the road and, as I say, I could put 30 more on the road tomorrow and they travel all the way from Citrus to the north to Sarasota to the south. Coming in, traveling all about the region."
The program, he said, works pretty much like a standard carpool. He said one van pool routinely takes a handful of passengers from Citrus County all the way to Westshore.
"You need a minimum of 5 or 6 people in a van that they sign an agreement with us, we provide them the van. It's insured, all of those things. These are all brand new vans."
Clifford said interested parties can find out more about the program on the TBARTA Web site. The agencyâ€™s next meeting will be June 3.