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Jeff Vinik, Jeff Brandes discuss future of Tampa Bay transportation at HART summit

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

In the future of transportation in Hillsborough County, buses and rail may be taking a back seat to autonomous vehicles and other cutting-edge technologies.

Although the Hillsborough Area Transit Authority (HART) primarily offers bus service, buses weren’t the focus of attention at the “State of Transit” event Tuesday at CAMLS in downtown Tampa.

Nor should they have been, as the theme of the day was “Beyond the Bus.”

No speaker in the hour-plus session was more visionary on transportation’s future in the Bay area than St. Petersburg GOP state Sen. Jeff Brandes. He talked enthusiastically about the growth of ride-sharing and the eventual employment of autonomous vehicles in the region.

Brandes lightly referenced issues that the Hillsborough County Public Transportation Commission has had in dealing with Uber and Lyft, but said that those companies are “revolutionizing” transportation.

“The paradigm of transit is changing,” Brandes told the crowd. “We have to think of transit as an organism.”

The future could include riding in a driverless Uber or Lyft car at a cost of 40 or 50 cents a mile, he added.

“That’s cheaper than I’ve ever been able to provide human transportation in the history of time,” Brandes gushed.

Such a future would be bigger than the smartphone, he said, and would radically change our cities. The future of transit will be based on four things: electric, autonomous, on-demand and shared.

“As a policymaker and as somebody who watches the budget, I can tell you thinking about autonomous vehicles and electric vehicles coming online at the same time is really interesting, but electric vehicles create their own set of challenges,” he said.

It would require rethinking the current model of how government funds transportation, he said, bringing up the fact that the importance of the gas tax could be affected since electric vehicles don’t use gas.

HART board chair and Tampa City Councilman Mike Suarez began his remarks by saying robust transportation would provide freedom of choice for the citizenry. He extolled that freedom of transit choices he said he recently experienced while visiting Philadelphia.

“We want to make sure that people have that same choice, and that same freedom,” Suarez said about the Hillsborough region. Such a possibility means that Hillsborough County and the Legislature needed to kick in more funds to provide more service.

“Public dollars has always been a big part of public transit, in every part of the country, not just here,” Suarez emphasized. Without that investment, he said, “we cannot provide the kind of freedom that people want.”

In his short but impactful time on the scene in Tampa, Channelside developer and Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik has become one of the city’s biggest ambassadors, while he works to recruit national companies to reside in the $2 billion planned development between his Strategic Property Partners and Cascade Investments.

Vinik said he was agnostic about what mode of transportation should be added to the area, but emphasized it will be the most important element in determining where Tampa and Hillsborough County will be as a community 10 to 20 years from now.

“Obviously, there have been some failed referendums over the last several years in this area,” Vinik said. “The good news is that we’re discussing transportation.”

Vinik added he’s excited about the upcoming 18-24 month “premium transit” study HART is about to conduct, as well as a 12- to 18-month study on the expansion of the Tampa Streetcar.

HART CEO Katherine Eagan (pictured above) kicked off her 15-minute presentation by generating guffaws as she described the Tampa Streetcar as “the nation’s smallest light-rail system.”

Upon hearing some groans when referring to the controversial Tampa Bay Express project, Eagan said, “You don’t have to like it to acknowledge how we’re talking about transportation.”

She also admitted HART is constrained by the funding they have, but said it wasn’t stopping the company’s innovation and imagination. And, she said, buses would not be the main solution to the county’s transit issues.

Eagan introduced the HART HyperLINK program, created to resolve the “first-mile, last-mile” issue. Working with Transdev, it’s considering a complement to existing bus service to provide access to a reservation call center and a smartphone app for customers which will allow real-time ride-sharing matching and rider incentives.

HART officials say the pilot program will begin in October and focus first on three select bus stops. Residents living within a three-mile radius of those stops will have the opportunity to try the program. The subsidized ride shares will cost residents $3 each way.

Eagan said once it was successful in Hillsborough County, it might go nationwide. It will start in the university area of Tampa, expanding to Brandon, and go on from there.

 

Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.

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