Transit survey shows many Hillsborough residents OK with funding rail

12/12/13 Janelle Irwin
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Tags: Hillsborough County, transit, Transportation, rail, Kevin Beckner, Mark Sharpe


Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin Beckner listen to presentations from planning agencies about the future of transit in the region.

photo by Janelle Irwin

Officials throughout Hillsborough County are joining forces to get the ball rolling on transit improvements. During a policy leadership group meeting Wednesday, several studies were looked at that showed many of the Tampa Bay area’s roads and highways are at or above capacity and it’s only going to get worse as populations boom. Steve Polzin, with the Center for Urban Transportation Research prompted the conversation about how to best address the problem for residents throughout the region.

“We are the highest on the principal and minor arterial system. So, the positive spin is our infrastructure is being well-utilized, but obviously it suggests that it’s crowded and in need of additional capacity as demand changes over time.”

According to Polzin, the Tampa Bay area is also the second worst among a sample of peer communities like Austin, Texas and Charlotte, North Carolina in highway congestion.

“To accommodate an additional 500,000 persons in the region would require 208 lane miles of freeways and 800 lane miles of arterials to provide the same amount of infrastructure per capita as we have today. In other words, if we just increased those number proportional to the change in population and this is as the regional level so the 500,000 is a modest long-range forecast at the regional level. It suggests we need some pretty substantial increases in infrastructure capacity just to maintain current levels of roadway capacity.”

But existing roadways can only be expanded so much. Sections of I-275 through Tampa and I-4 can only accommodate one additional lane in each direction and that wouldn’t solve congestion woes entirely. So planners are also looking at getting drivers out of their cars and into multi-modal transportation like buses and even trains. A survey conducted among nearly 4,000 residents in and around the Tampa Bay area showed that despite groups like No Tax for Tracks who are opposed to funding rail projects, there is some interest. Melissa Zornitta is the assistant director of the Hillsborough County Planning Commission that oversaw the Imagine 2040 survey.

“In terms of the results, we asked what were the five things that mattered to people the most and the top three were traffic congestion, job creation and available bus or rail.”

The topic of creating some form of passenger rail between major employment centers like the Westshore District, downtown Tampa and the USF corridor came up among several county commissioners. But the process goes like this – come up with a plan and then figure out how to pay for it. Commissioners are cautious about posing funding options for transit improvements after a 2010 referendum failed. But Zornitta’s study suggests voters may be more open to raising taxes now.

“The highest rated ones were one time fees on new development, tolls on new lanes and sales tax. Unpopular picks that had more low ratings were utility taxes, sort of the do nothing answer which was no new taxes, maintain what we have and property tax.”

But some commissioners are ready for all the talk to turn into action. Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin Beckner asked when these studies were going to start leading to answers.

“As you can see, I’m just a little bit anxious to start marrying things together and start bringing forth recommendations.”

And the fear that transportation problems may be growing faster than solutions echoed among other commissioners.

“I was in Westshore trying to get to Lemon Street. There was a lot of congestion there this morning, but I was talking to the business folks there and they were saying, ‘we’re looking for a way out’ because it’s so challenging.”

Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe is leading an effort to bring back a transportation plan that could lead to another referendum similar to what is being placed on a 2014 ballot in Pinellas and that failed in Hillsborough in 2010. The county was criticized because voters didn’t have a good enough idea on what the referendum would have funded. So plans are being carefully looked at this time around. Polzin, from the Center for Urban Transportation Research, joked that regional transportation would be easier to deal with if Pinellas County would just move a little closer since much of the traffic in Tampa consists of commuters from across the bay.

“But when we compare ourselves in transportation statistics, it’s important to realize that we’re not a kind of classic, mono-centric city. Our transportation network connectivity is partly dispersed simply because of, not only Tampa Bay which is 400 square miles right in the middle of the economic community, but we’ve got lots of other wetlands and water bodies that complicate the design and the orientation of our transportation network.”

He also defended another criticism of Hillsborough County’s roads. The area has the worst bicyclist fatality rate among peer cities and the second worst in pedestrian deaths.

“There’s often a temptation to attribute it to either roadway capacity or roadway design characteristics. Those are certainly a piece of it, but there’s a host of other factors. It’s tourism, it’s visitors, it’s tired tourists, it’s strangers, it’s population characteristics – things like homelessness, substance abuse, etc.”

Other ideas batted around by transit planners included improvements to traffic signals on busy corridors like Bruce B. Downs and Fowler as well as possible road widening and managed lanes. Hillsborough County officials are hopeful they’ll be ready to move forward with a ballot initiative to secure funding by 2015.

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