State legislators representing the eight counties that make up the Tampa Bay area Legislative Delegation spent two hours in Clearwater on Wednesday discussing attempts to find a way to begin adequately dealing with the region’s myriad transportation issues.
According to a new white paper prepared by the D.C. based Enos Center for Transportation for the Tampa Bay Partnership, a regional structure for transportation planning, operations and decision-making is paramount to developing a regional transportation system. Which might make an interested observer ask – isn’t that what TBARTA was supposed to be all about?
The Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority was created by the Florida Legislature a decade ago to develop and implement a regional transportation master plan of the seven-county West Central Florida region. Yet as Manatee County GOP Senator Bill Galvano recounted on Wednesday, it was created without a funding mechanism, after then Governor Charlie Crist vetoed the $8 million in appropriations that were created with it.
Galvano said, “That was a shock to all of us,” adding that, “I don’t think he (Crist) realized the connection and it felt through the cracks.”
Whether TBARTA can ultimately become that vehicle as intended was only mentioned towards the end of the meeting held at Ruth Eckerd Hall.
Lawmakers heard from Lightning owner and Channelside developer Jeff Vinik and Barry Shevlin, co-chairs from the transportation working group with the Tampa Bay Partnership, who worked with the Enos Center to produce the white paper.
Vinik’s comments were more general, saying that waiting another five to ten years to develop a master plan will constrain the growth of the Tampa Bay area. He said all options for transportation improvements – roadway expansion, BRT lines, light rail, commuter rail, etc. – all were on the table. “I know it’s critical that we reach consensus in a direction that we want to head,” he said.
Shevlin delved more into specifics.
“We’re a top twenty metro area, but we’re acting like a collection of municipalities and counties and not a region,” he stated, adding that there was obviously no regional structure for trnasportion planning or decision making in general happening in the region. And twice during his public comments, Shevlin lamented the fact that on last Saturday, there were 14 different buses moving from Dover in Eastern Hillsborough County to downtown Tampa, yet there wasn’t a single vehicle going from Tampa to Clearwater or St. Petersburg.
Shevlin outlined four priorities that the Partnership believes need to happen.
One is to create a multi-county Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO). The second plan is to support a regional center for transit operations. Shevlin said HART and PSTA, the two biggest transit agencies in the Bay area, should have a “closer relationship,” but left it open as to how that happens.
Clearwater Republican Senator Jack Latvala called for a consolidation between the two agencies more than four years ago. After two different studies were conducted, that merger never happened, though the agencies are poised to sign an interlocal agreement which will necessitate more joint efforts.
Shevlin also called for a uniform regulatory law in the state regarding ride share, which Tampa Republican Representative Jamie Grant later assured would happen in this year’s session. And the fourth priority is the regional transit study being conducted right now by the Florida Dept. of Transportation which involves the very controversial Tampa Bay Express project.
TBX was almost an afterthought in the discussions, even though the multibillion dollar plan has been hailed as a much needed congestion relief package. Democrats Sean Shaw and Darryl Rouson, who represented the neighborhoods slated to be deleteriously affected by the TBX proposal, both counseled FDOT to double down on its efforts to communicate with the local community. “As it relates to TBX, my constituents don’t feel that they’ve been heard,” Shaw said.
Senator Galvano said that there has been too much parochialism in the past when it comes to local governments wanted to help out other governments in the 2.9 million universe that is the Tampa Bay area.
“I don’t know if we can get there,” he admitted. “It’s a real challenge, getting the mindset that you may have to ante up in your community for a regional plan that’s not going to impact your community for maybe one, two, three or maybe four years.”
As to whether TBARTA could ever become that agency?
“They are operating on a shoestring budget, cobbled together on donations from local governments,” state HD 63 Republican Shawn Harrison, who served on the TBARTA board when it was first created. “If we can take that vision and expand, I really do think we do have at our disposal a vehicle that can plan and put assets on the road. ”
“We do have a shoestring budget,” echoed Ray Chiaramonte, TBARTA’s executive director. He did say that every local government except for Sarasota funded the agency last year.
Galvano said he appreciated the work from the Tampa Bay Partnership, but said looking at his colleagues, ranging from counties as diverse as Sarasota to Polk, that “it’s not about the Tampa Bay Partnership, it’s about us, and it’s going to take some effort.”