Connect Tampa Bay: Building Consensus Around Transportation

When downtown Tampa resident David Watts wants to make his way around the Tampa Bay region, his options are limited: More often than not, he gets in his car, fills up his gas tank, drives to his desired destination and back-- a yearly expense of between $6,000 and $11,400, according to the American Public Transportation Association (APTA).

"I love living in Tampa-- especially downtown-- but when it comes to public transportation, I think there's a lot of improvement to be made locally,'' says Watts. "Ideally, I'd like my car to become a thing of the past.''

Apart from hopping on the TECO Line Streetcar System or a Hillsborough Area Regional Transit (HART) bus every now and then, Watts believes there isn't much to choose from when it comes to efficient, dependable public transportation in downtown Tampa or the Tampa Bay region, as a whole.

"Tampa has a lot to offer-- a vibrant downtown, local restaurants and shops, arts districts, attractions. People love being out and about, but I feel community involvement is hindered by a lack of transportation options in the area,'' Watts says. "Wouldn't it be great if we were all a little better connected?''

Taking the time to listen to residents like Watts, Connect Tampa Bay (Connect), a new organization started by citizens, is doing just that: Connecting residents to create more transportation options in the Tampa Bay area.

"While HART and the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA) have done a remarkable job with the resources they have-- both reaching record ridership for many months in a row-- we are moving one-fifth the number of people around as similar regions across the country,'' says Connect Executive Director Kevin Thurman. "Places like Charlotte, Dallas, Minneapolis, Denver and Austin all move two-to-three times more riders than either transit system in the Tampa Bay area, currently.''

Take a look at the numbers: With approximately 2.4 million residents in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, HART and PSTA are totaling an average of 26 million rides per year. Austin, Texas' Capital Metro System, made up of two counties and one city, is seeing 51 million rides per year-- 3.4 times our local rides per person-- and with 2.7 million residents in eight counties, the Regional Transportation District in Denver, Colo. is averaging 119 million rides. That's 4.4 times Tampa Bay area rides per person.

Letting Voters Decide

"The difference between these systems and our regions is simple funding from local, state and federal level,'' Thurman says. "PSTA took a huge step forward in January by looking for funding to expand public transit and we hope leaders in Hillsborough will join them in developing a forward vision.''

Recently, the Pinellas County Commission voted to to put an expanded mass transit system referendum on the ballot for 2014. Likewise, Hillsborough County Commission is considering starting conversation about alternative transportation options in the area.

Launched on December 17th, 2012 by Brian Willis, Brandie Miklus and Brian Seel, with Thurman's help, Connect has grown into an organization of more than 2,000 supporters in less than three months. Connect's success can be attributed to recent polls showing that as many as 150,000 people consider public transportation their number one priority for the local region.

"We want to help organize support for transit by listening and helping to advocate for what the public wants done,'' Thurman says. "We're focused on engaging citizens on transportation issues on a grassroots level to create more transportation options in Tampa Bay.''

Believing there aren't enough places for citizens to currently get involved and advocate on these issues, the founders of Connect decided to start the organization with a goal of  "getting things built,'' he says. Why? It's simple: Access to public transportation saves money, time and the environment while stimulating the local economy.

Saving Money And Time

According to APTA, public transportation services in some of the country's most congested cities saved travelers 1.1 billion hours of travel; without public transportation options, travel delays would have increased by up to 27 percent.

Likewise, the average household spends 19 cents of every dollar earned on transportation due to the buying, maintenance and operating costs of owning a car-- the largest source of household debt after mortgages.

With more residents looking to alternative options of transportation to get around-- walking, biking and transit systems-- Connect aims to work with local leaders, giving residents a real vision on how to fund and build these wants and needs, ultimately moving more people around Tampa Bay.

"We want to see new bike lanes, more trails, transit infrastructure and badly needed road improvements. These options are important, leading to better economic growth and a high quality of life,'' he says. "To achieve this, we are going to need funding-- and we can't wait until Tallahassee or Washington, D.C. decides to help.''

Tampa Bay area residents will determine the driving force behind and success of Connect, Thurman says. He urges residents to consider: What does public transit mean to you? What can be done to improve connections? What kind of transportation options would you invest in?

"After a lot of listening, we are going to begin to work with citizens to help them advocate for what they want. We aren't going to try to do the job of politicians, planners or other government officials-- we just want to make sure residents' voices are heard.''

Alexis Quinn Chamberlain, a Florida native and freelance writer, can often be found barhopping on South Howard Avenue, walking around her North Hyde Park neighborhood and daydreaming with her boyfriend and Chihuahua at Davis Island Dog Beach. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.
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