Not Your Average Speakers Engage Community In Conversation On Transit

Christina Barker spends a lot of time in her car.

She drives from New Port Richey in Pasco County to work in Tampa in Hillsborough County. Her husband drives from Pasco to work in Pinellas County.

Their commutes are about 45 minutes each way and get longer depending on traffic congestion.

"Transportation is important to us,'' says Christina, 28, who works for the Tampa Bay Partnership. "Not just this county but this whole region.''

Forging A Path To The Future

The Tampa Bay region is in the midst of some major decision making about where to go next when it comes to paying for transportation. Pinellas County is proposing a sales tax increase on the November ballot to enhance bus service and start light rail. The city of Tampa is considering a similar referendum in 2015 or 2016.

An opponent and supporters of the Greenlight Pinellas plan shared their frustrations with current transportation options and answered audience questions on Wednesday (March 12) during 83 Degrees Media's Not Your Average Speakers led community conversation titled "Tampa Bay Mobility: Mapping The Economics of Transit''  at NOVA 535.

"Good transportation is key to the quality of life,'' says panel moderator Neil Brown, the editor of the Tampa Bay Times, in starting the panel discussion. "Can we agree there is room for improvement?''

Panelists nod yes and the audience of nearly 100 people claps and cheers.

"At least we will agree on one thing tonight,'' he says.

Transportation Trouble

Barbara Haselden, spokeswoman for No Tax for Tracks, says she sees nothing wrong with the streets and roads in Pinellas County. The problem with getting around, she says, is the seemingly endless road construction projects and the length of time they take to complete.

"Just the fact that these projects are not being worked on 24 hours a day and most times you see guys standing around shovels talking,'' she says.

Recently Florida Gov. Rick Scott proposed an $8.8 billion transportation budget that includes funding some projects in the Tampa Bay region:

  • $194 million to help with a proposed $943 million expansion to construct a 2.3 million-square-foot car rental and retail building and 1.3 mile people mover at Tampa International Airport. The project, scheduled to be complete in 2017, could link with a potential transit system.
     
  • $131 million to help pay for a $338 million elevated road connecting I-275 and U.S. HIghway 19.
     
  • $3.2 million to speed up work on the $113.5 million U.S. 19 expansion project between Whitney Road and Seville Boulevard in Clearwater. Contractors will get a $1.6 million bonus if the project is complete on time, which is supposed to be late 2015.

"We've talked about this to death but haven't done anything more than add additional lanes,'' says panelist Ken Welch, a third generation Pinellas resident who has served as commissioner since 2000. "Just building roads and having that mentality is not going to get us where we need to be.''

Brian Willis, a lawyer in Tampa and founder of a citizen transportation advocacy group called Connect Tampa Bay, describes never ending road expenses fiscally irresponsible. The Greenlight Pinellas plan is about offering transportation options, "not U.S. 19 2.0,'' he said.

A Changing Workforce

The Tampa Bay region is competing to attract the best and brightest talent from around the globe. So is Charlotte, Dallas and Phoenix, as well as other cities. But potential employees coming out of college too often choose urban areas other than Tampa partly because of the lack of rail here, says Mike Meidel, director of Pinellas County Economic Development.

This is the largest metro area in the country without a rail transit system, Meidel says.

Kids fresh out of college do not want a car, Meidel says. "They do not want to be tied down to that material object. We really, in order to attract that kind of person --  we need to have this alternative.''

While the proposed light rail route would have stops in Clearwater, Largo and downtown St. Petersburg, the plan does not include stops in communities farther north, such as Palm Harbor.

Residents there see it as an amenity, says Don Ewing, who represents homeowners in the North County Council of Neighborhoods. They might not use the system daily to get to work, but they are likely to travel to a Rays game or to get around on the weekends.

"It's about the people. This transit system is being designed for people like you and I and our kids. ... To live and play differently.''

Financing For The Future

Greenlight Pinellas plan opponents showed up with red magnetic signs on their cars reading "No Tax for Tracks. Stop Pinellas County Light Rail.''

The "No Tax for Tracks'' supporters are critical of the financing and the potential use of taxes to pay for infrastructure that would be used by a small portion of the area's population.

Haselden says the plan is built on a false premise that the county population is increasing. The area lost a house seat and about 20,000 residents from 2000 to the 2010 census, she says. The decrease was the first for the area since the 1940s. Haselden warns that these rail lines would have a similar effect that malls and suburbs did to downtowns in the 1960s and 70s.

Already critical of road construction, Haselden suggests that rail is a Pandora's box of government spending.

The return on investment from the infrastructure expense is worth the cost, Meidel says. Many communities with new rail see increased development along the lines.

Because the rail lines are fixed spaces, it shows potential developers a long-term investment in the area. It also helps funnel growth, he said.

"We built all the lane miles we could really build. We are right up against valuable commercial properties in many places,'' says Meidel.

Supporters predict ridership numbers would increase with expanded bus service. Workers and college students would take a bus if they could also take it home. Tourists planning a vacation go elsewhere because there is no train option to get around the area.

"It's not just about light rail. … people do this a disservice when they call it a rail tax,'' Welch says. "This is about the future of Pinellas County.''

Support For Conversation

Underwriting support for this "Not Your Average Speakers'' event comes from Tucker Hall, Baker Barrios, PNC Bank and Pinellas County Economic Development along with host venue, Nova 535.

Jared Leone is a freelance writer living in Clearwater. He writes about all things Tampa Bay. Follow him @jared_leone on Twitter. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.

Read more articles by Jared Leone.

Jared Leone is a feature writer at 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.
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