Legislation that would create a regional transit agency connecting four Tampa Bay-area counties breezed through committees in both the House and Senate last week.
The proposed agency would be created in advance of a much anticipated Florida Dept. of Transportation transit study scheduled to be completed next year.
“It’s a real project. It’s not just talk. And so we realized that in order to get this started, we needed to have the right kind of planning and the right operational structure in place that will give us a greater chance of success,” says Rick Homans, president of the Tampa Bay Partnership, the local economic development group. The creation of the agency was the number one “ask” of the Partnership going into the legislative session.
Although some observers have said the bill seems like a rehashed version of TBARTA, the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transit Authority that was created a decade ago but without any funding to fulfill its goals, the newly proposed agency’s scope has been reduced from seven Bay area counties to four, and was originally just three – Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco.
Manatee County was added after Senator Bill Galvano advocated for its inclusion, Homans said.
Plant City Republican Dan Raulerson did hear some concerns from lawmakers when he introduced the bill in the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee last week, mostly about the composition of the 13-member board. As of now, there would be seven members selected from the private sector and six lawmakers.
“The most important thing is we try to create a governance structure that encourages participation by people who think regionally,” says Homans, adding that he’s not so concerned with the exact balance, as “long as they support the mission.”
There has been increasing talk over the last year or so of creating a regional Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO). Homans says that there will be a meeting on May 12 in St. Petersburg with MPO officials, elected officials and business leaders to kickoff discussions about a potential regional MPO.
The Tampa Bay Times reported on Friday about the relative lack of requests for transportation projects by Tampa Bay area lawmakers this session.
“First, you have to have a plan,” Homans says about why that’s the case. “We don’t have a plan. Then you need an organization to implement it and build it, and then you need an organization to operate it, and we don’t have those things in place. We’re moving towards putting those structures into place to make the ‘big ask.'”
The bill is being pushed in the Senate by Clearwater Republican Jack Latvala, who has a keen interest in seeing the local transit agencies work closer together.
“We’ve got a lot of folks in my party that just bury their head in the sand when it comes to transportation,” the venerable lawmaker said last summer when talking about the handling of the critical Tampa Bay area issue.