TBARTA ponders costs of transit system

12/19/08 Seán Kinane
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A regional transit network in the Tampa Bay area could cost between $11 and $23 billion. During their monthly board meeting this morning, TBARTA, the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority, contemplated how to pay for that system.

Bob Clifford was recently hired to be TBARTA’s first executive director. He said that costs for a regional transit system have to include the costs of existing bus service as well as new construction of mass transit such as rail lines for the seven-county region, built incrementally over many decades. “That plan ranges from about 11 billion [dollars] to about 23 billion [dollars] depending upon the pieces that you would select.”

The cost to operate and maintain a fully built-out transit system would be about $150 million per year, Clifford told the board. He said that if all seven counties were to institute an additional 1 percent sales tax for transit, it would generate $488 million per year.

Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio has suggested that instead of having a regional body like TBARTA ask counties to come up with a sales tax for transit, the initiative should come from each county when its residents are ready for the idea. Hillsborough may hold a referendum to raise sales tax by 1 cent as early as 2010. Clifford said that Iorio’s county-by-county idea could succeed, even for a regional effort.

Iorio, who was absent on Friday, will address the TBARTA board on the subject at their January meeting.

During the 2008 session, TBARTA received $2 million from the Florida Legislature. But those funds must be spent by the end of June 2009, unless changes are made. TBARTA intends to ask the Legislature to allow the $2 million to be spent over several years. They are uncertain whether to make the request during next month’s special session to deal with the budget deficit or during the regular session because extra scrutiny of TBARTA during these tough economic times could result in its funding being cut. Clifford said that the legislators he has spoken with have offered their “strong support” for TBARTA’s request, but they have given some advice.

“We need to get in and get out of legislative session. This is not the session to be seen, to be heard, to hang around. You draw attention to yourself, so to speak,” he said.

TBARTA is also considering raising funds from part of a surcharge on rental cars that now goes to the Florida Department of Transportation or from a new tax on rentals. The Tri-Rail transit system in South Florida is also seeking such funding.

TBARTA has produced three maps with possible transit routes from Citrus County in the north to Sarasota County in the south. Those three maps will be combined into a hybrid network, Clifford said.

The draft of TBARTA’s hybrid plan will be shared with the public in January, said Shelton Quarles, chair of the TBARTA board.

TBARTA will take public input following the release of the draft and will adopt the final version at either the February or March board meeting, according to Executive Director Bob Clifford.

In the future TBARTA will have to decide whether it will be the entity that owns, runs, and manages the transit system. Board members said they would schedule a special Saturday meeting sometime following their January meeting to discuss difficult and long-term questions like that.

The TBARTA Board elected new officers on Friday. Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard was selected as vice chair. Pasco County Commissioner Ann Hildebrand had been serving in the combined role of treasurer and secretary, but that was split into two positions and Hildebrand stayed on as secretary. Hugh McGuire, a gubernatorial appointee to the TBARTA Board, was elected treasurer. Chair Shelton Quarles’ term does not expire until next year.

The next TBARTA board meeting will be Jan. 23 at USF.

Previous WMNF coverage of TBARTA executive director interviews

Previous WMNF coverage of Iorio’s concerns about a region-wide sales tax for transit

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