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Hillsborough, Pinellas hoping joint transit grant bid finds favor with feds

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

Thanks to some smart planning and a little federal insight, Pinellas County Commission won’t be going after this year’s Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery [TIGER] grant money.

Instead, commissioners will support the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority and Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority’s joint application for those same dollars.

The Board of County Commissioners formally agreed to approve a letter of support for the move at its March 29 regular meeting.

“For several years, Pinellas County has submitted our own application for TIGER funding,” reads the letter written by Commission Chairman Charlie Justice and addressed to the U.S. Department of Transportation. “But this year we are withholding our application in order to put our full support behind this regional priority.”

Hillsborough County Commission is expected to back the move as well, providing the type of unified front the federal government seems to be looking for in TIGER grant candidates.

“In discussions with our federal lobbyists,” said County Administrator Mark Woodard. “I was told that this action […] sends not only a powerful symbolic sign of partnership at the regional level, but, in a very real way, could advantage this application and make it more successful.”

Commissioner Janet Long, who also serves on the PSTA Board, made similar comments, saying that during PSTA’s recent trip to Washington D.C., “We got very good, positive responses from people we spoke with at the Federal Transportation Administration. They were very upfront about […] this being exactly the kind of thing they want to see — in a regional way — throughout the country.”

Should the county’s move toward a unified front pay off, the TIGER dollars would go toward a regional fare box system aimed at providing a consistent bus payment plan for Hillsborough, Pasco, Pinellas, Polk, Manatee, Citrus and Hernando counties.

“The implementation of the regional fare box system will allow riders to use the latest technology in order to seamlessly move throughout the entire Tampa Bay region to access educational, cultural and employment opportunities,” reads Justice’s letter.

Ideally, smart cards will expedite the entire public bus riding experience, as well as save money for the transit agencies.

“The regional fare box system will save money for each of the transit agencies due to reduced overhead costs,” continues Justice’s letter. “[It] will also save time on the road, as the bus will not have to sit idle while riders purchase passes onboard. Most importantly, it will dramatically improve rider experience and convenience.”

Under the plan, riders would be able to buy a card in one county and use it on public transit in any of the other six participating counties.

“This is incremental progress,” concluded Commissioner Ken Welch before the Board unanimously voted in favor of the measure.

In its eighth funding cycle, the federal TIGER grant program is highly competitive. Last year $10.1 billion in requests were received by the U.S. DOT, over 20 times the program’s available $500 million budget.

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Devon Crumpacker is a Tampa Bay based writer and reporter for Extensive Enterprises Media. He primarily covers Pinellas County politics for SaintPetersblog.com, but also makes time to write the occasional bar review for FloridaBarTab.com. He lives in St. Petersburg with his fiance, Sydney. To contact, e-mail devon@floridapolitics.com, or visit his Twitter page @DevonCrumpacker.

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