Elected officials look for ways to improve Tampa Bay transit

09/19/12 Janelle Irwin
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Elected officials from across the region are learning how to improve transit. The group Transportation for America is hosting a summit today at the Val Pak headquarters in St. Petersburg that features experts on the topic as well as planners from cities with model transit systems. St. Pete City Council’s Jeff Danner said funding infrastructure is a major hurdle for the area.

“The thing with transportation is, regardless of what mode it is it’s very expensive and funding’s always the issue on top of the fact that some money - existing revenues are down to try to find new revenues for new projects is very challenging. So, hopefully they’ll have some new ideas here.”

Danner, who is also a Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority board member, helped with a study that lays out plans to connect downtown St. Pete to the Carillon business district in Mid-Pinellas and then up to Clearwater. The so-called Alternatives Analysis would also improve the county’s bus system. The project is expected to cost $1.5 billion. Danner said because the federal government no longer ear marks funds for transportation, finding funding is a little different and a lot more difficult.

“It’s still kind of new so we don’t know a lot either, but - not completely the same, but there is still that opportunity to work with your legislators for the grant process.”

So the Pinellas transit authority is looking for ways to pay for the project through 2030. They hope to convince voters to approve a penny sales tax for most of it. But Danner said the rail study completed this year also serves as an application for federal money.

“Now that that’s complete we follow their process. That then qualifies us to apply if we have the match. Then we go to the state for whatever funding levels they have. That’s why FDOT is our partner on the Howard Franklin Bridge study so they can help with the road networks.”

Danner said they are also looking into private funding from large companies who have businesses around proposed train stations.

“They’re the ones that can take advantage of transit first and have sort of a built in, guaranteed ridership. Most of them also own large tracts of land where we want to go.”

The event was closed to the media, but the organizers said a panel consisting of transportation experts and elected officials in areas with model transit programs would be sharing ideas with attendees. Bill Jonson, a Clearwater City Council member and PSTA board member, said he hoped to hear some success stories that the Tampa Bay region could learn from.

“How do we connect with the citizens so that we make sure that we’re doing what they’d like us to do and that they’re going to support what we end up doing.”

Jonson said he’s traveled to places like Minneapolis where transit is better integrated.

“They’re very livable and tend to be more walkable and they tend to provide more options for people to choose different living styles.”

But the Tampa Bay area is jammed up when it comes to transportation. Hillsborough County attempted to fund a light rail plan in 2010 with a tax referendum, but voters rejected it. The effort in Pinellas County is slow going because planners are trying to make sure they don’t make the same mistakes Hillsborough did – like jumping the gun. But Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe said the county is still considering ways to re-hash the plan.

“Most referendums fail when you start the process because it’s a tremendous public education process. Really, it’s a matter of elected officials listening to the citizens, but also the citizens working with the elected officials to find a way to improve our transit because everyone knows transit is tied to economic development and economic development, obviously, is going to drive our local region.”

Sharpe said elected officials also need to be careful of what they’re asking taxpayers to pony up.

“We’re not going to have a big, mega referendum. I think we’ve learned that large, giant referendums usually don’t succeed - small ones work. So if you’re going to have small referendums then we need to make sure that we collectively understand what we’re all doing and that’s a challenge.”

Officials in Pinellas County call funding for their light rail plan a tax swap because it would impose an extra 1% sales tax, but reduce property taxes. Transit planners also say that would shift some of the cost burden away from residents and more onto tourists who would also be using the system.

Transportation For America website

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