A solution to Tampa Bay’s traffic nightmare is under construction

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The 9th floor of University of Tampa’s Vaughn Center overlooks the downtown area and its surrounding streets. It’s a fine pulpit for the attentive crowd who gathered to hear and weigh in on what’s being done about traffic relief for Tampa Bay’s multiple counties. Emerge Tampa Bay is an urban leadership group for ages 21 to 35. Four panelists led a discussion of plans for a mass transit overhaul.

Hillsborough Commissioner Kevin Beckner and Pinellas County Commissioner, Kenneth Welch, along with the two counties’ top transportation officials, led a pivotal discussion on what’s underway for Tampa’s highways. Welch, who describes himself as a ‘car nut,’ wants to rid the stigma of public bus transit as exclusive for those without a choice.

“For the folks that want to stay in their cars, the selling point is, the more folks we get into public transit, the fewer cars there will be on the road. And we can’t continue to build—add lanes and add roads—we simply don’t have enough money or space to do that. So adding that modern transit component is just part of having that overall balanced and efficient transportation system.”

In 2010, Hillsborough County proposed a one-cent sales tax increase to fund a transportation overhaul, but it was rejected by voters. Although it’s not on the ballot for Hillsborough voters this year, Commissioner Beckner wants residents to be on the lookout.

“We are putting together a comprehensive transit plan. And so we expect that some time late summer going early into the fall, to be able to roll that out to the public. And so we’re going to be providing the options and the different funding options that are also available. So people should stay tuned and watch for that.”

Brian Seel, a senior project engineer and Emerge Tampa Bay leader, says people shouldn’t be afraid of taking action, just because it might take some time.

“My grandparents lived here. And what they could’ve done to change the way our area grows back then, it didn’t happen; this is a generational issue. It’s happened for multiple generations. So even if takes 5 more years to pass a plan that works or two more years, and if takes 10 years to build it or 20 years to build it, we gotta do something.”

Greenlight Pinellas, a plan four years in the making, materialized last December. This November Pinellas County voters will be deciding whether to trade in their transportation property tax for a one-cent sales tax. In return, a plan to immediately provide more bus routes, including, express 15-minute interval pick-ups, 30-minute bus service on weekends and late night service, will be put into place.

But it’s not only mass transit for adults that Brad Miller, the CEO of Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority, is focused on. He uses a model recently implemented in Polk County.

“They did a deal with the school board to offer free rides to high school students and then they expanded to middle school students. It solves some current issues that students and parents might have related to transportation, it starts building that culture of somebody getting used to taking public transportation. And so my belief is, it really starts with the younger crowds, the kids, that’s where we build the base at.”

Gradually, other options will be added, including, a 24-mile light rail connecting St. Petersburg to Tampa. Commissioner Welch says the Florida Department of Transportation is currently collaborating with them.

“We’re also planning for a connection to Hillsborough County over the new Howard Frankland Bridge. And as I’ve said, FDOT has already contributed $25 million to that project, now we need much more to complete it, but just imagine the day when you can hop on a rail in Downtown St. Pete and end up over here at Westshore or Downtown Tampa with connections to Orlando and beyond. That’s what we’re working for.”

He also says that the system will not come to place without the one-cent sales tax increase; he emphasizes that 35% of the cost will already be covered by tourists in Pinellas.

“You can’t fund an efficient, robust transit system without a funding source.”

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