Beth Alden is looking to have a serious discussion about regional transportation in the Tampa Bay area.
In early 2017, the consensus among the political and business establishment is that the Tampa Bay region must come together as one cohesive regional entity to maximize its leverage before anything can be done about transportation.
However, Alden, the head of the Hillsborough County Metropolitan Organization (MPO), wants to put on the brakes.
“Let’s not do this half-assed,” she asserted in an interview earlier this week. “If we’re going to do this, let’s do this for real. Let’s have a real conversation about this.”
Alden fears that with the regular legislative session scheduled to begin in just a few weeks that conversation with all the key players involved won’t happen in time.
According to a new white paper prepared by the D.C.-based Enos Center for Transportation, a regional structure for transportation planning, operations and decision-making is paramount to developing a regional transportation system.
The document was sponsored by the Tampa Bay Partnership, who is leading the way to have the eight-county region come together as one unit to facilitate and expedite transportation improvements.
Speaking at a meeting of the Tampa Bay Area Legislative Delegation in Clearwater last week was Veology CEO Barry Shelvin, who is the co-chair transportation working group with the TBP with Jeff Vinik.
Shelvin said two goals for the Partnership this year is to create a multicounty MPO and to a support a regional center for transit operations.
HART and PSTA, the two biggest transit agencies in the Bay area, should have a “closer relationship,” he said, leaving it open as to how that happens.
HART and PSTA formally signed a Memorandum of Understanding this week, which some transit critics fear is a stalking horse toward another sales tax referendum, or possibly a merger of the agencies.
That concern led HART officials to explicitly add language to the agreement saying that won’t happen.
The Hillsborough County MPO already has formal planning agreements with Pinellas, Hernando, Pasco, Polk, Sarasota and Manatees counties, all working within the MPO TBARTA coordinating committee.
In December, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and Federal Transit Administration (FTA) jointly finalized a new rule calling for MPO’s in urbanized areas to merge. It was first promulgated last summer, and Alden says her organization has spent the past six months studying four different cases on how MPO’s organize planning processes in other parts of the country.
“We think we have crafted a thoughtful approach that includes public discussion of the issue, and independent nationwide research into effective strategies to address the issue of regionalization,” she says. “We can do this well, but we need to do our homework.”
Alden was inspired to post a lengthy comment on the MPO’s Facebook page last week following a Tampa Bay Times editorial lauding the Enos Center report, writing: “I’m not at all saying we should do nothing for regional transit. I’m saying we have to walk before we can fly.”
The Times editorial and Clearwater state Sen. Jack Latvala have invoked the example of Tampa Bay Water as a template for creating a regional transportation authority, but Alden questions that logic.
In the case of Tampa Bay Water, local governments turned over their own water resources to a third party to sell the water back to them at wholesale prices. Alden wants to know how that apply to regional transit.
“The primary source of operating funding for transit is a property tax levy, so what are we talking about, asking HART and PSTA to begin turning over their property tax to an independent agency across multiple counties?” she asks.
Disagreeing with Alden is Pinellas County Commissioner Janet Long, who says the time is now for the Legislature to create a Tampa Bay area transit authority.
“Now they’re going to do another study?” she asked disdainfully. “As if this issue has not been studied to death.”