What's next for Florida: Sam Gibbons, Tampa

If you find you’ve dug yourself into a hole, the first thing you should do is stop digging. Right?

Well, we are finding ourselves in a hole here in the Tampa Bay Area when it comes to transportation. 

Our state and region boomed for decades as air conditioning and automobiles became widely accessible to everyone. 

Sam GibbonsWe kept building out into Florida’s former citrus groves and pastureland as it became more comfortable to do so, perceiving that we would forever enjoy the ease of mobility provided by improvements in automobiles. 

Then along came Dangerous by Design, a report distributed most recently in 2016, which looks at pedestrian and bicycle-related auto fatalities throughout our nation -- in other words, people killed by motorized vehicles. 

Florida, as a state, remains easily the most dangerous, and the Tampa Bay Area continues to help lead the pack as speeds and capacity take priority over the lives of people within our community. We are also gaining a reputation in Florida for something else: Toll lanes. 

Consider toll lanes that have additional, separated, and more expensive express lanes built into the existing toll road. Our very own Veterans Expressway is one such example. It’s an engineering feat that allows us to increase capacity and speed, yet dumps into I-275 and Kennedy Boulevard as a growing point of congestion that backs up traffic for our region. The situation helps paint a portrait of a hole that has been continually dug for over 50 years.

Instead of attempting to responsibly fill this hole and climb out of it, we are bringing in excavators to deepen and widen our nationally recognized safety problems. It may be elevated but Tampa Bay Expressway, a toll road, is another example of this long tradition of increasing auto capacity and prioritizing high speeds over other forms of transportation -- forms of transportation so varied that the possibilities stir the imagination of even the blandest souls. We stand inside the unintended consequence of a region and a state built on affordable automobile production.

Exacerbating problems

These excavators propose placing new off ramps in our already speed-endangered neighborhoods making us less safe, and at a cost of at least $6 billion. We would be exacerbating problems of climate change mitigation by increasing green house gas production and adding to the trend of massive societal inequality we continue to struggle with today.

The neediest of our region won’t benefit from these added toll lanes and all of us will be more at risk of automobile homicide. The production of greenhouse gasses and societal inequalities were identified by President Obama as the defining problems of our time. 

Any increase in capacity/supply with these overly burdened and easily congested interstate systems will be met and exceeded in the long term by demand, which will worsen our cycle of congestion. Those extra automobiles, which are typically the 2nd largest expense behind  mortgage or rent payments for individuals and families, will only add more pollution from spilled fluids and exhaust fumes, more noise and continue to erode our shared quality of life.

Our region has more than tripled in population since 1970 with every indication that that trend will continue. It isn’t safe for people to move about our cities or region anymore except inside an automobile’s steel cage. I know, because as a person who embraces an active lifestyle, I have been hit by more than my fair share of cars rolling though stop signs and red lights.

The inability to safely move about our cities and region affects everyone and everything. Socially, aging seniors especially are left alone or to fend for themselves, a recipe for disaster including mental health issues. Economically, the lack of mobility options is one of the leading contributors to living in poverty. Environmentally, vehicle congestion and the continued burning of fossil fuels continues to pollute air quality and add dangerous fluids into our water supply — further damaging the ecosystem.

Those three topics represent the triple bottom line of sustainability. Finding equilibrium between what is socially, economically, and environmentally just is the battlefield we find ourselves in today. Finding that equilibrium will serve to improve upon our quality of life and will ensure future generations that same quality of life.

Arriving safely

I know I’m not the only one who would like to ride a bicycle from Tampa to St Petersburg or Clearwater, Plant City or Cockroach Bay and there isn’t a safe way to accomplish that yet. I’d also like to ride the ferry again from Tampa to St. Pete, but it isn’t currently available -- for political as much as financial reasons. I’d like real mobility circulators that dynamically serve a variety of people of different means and circumstances while allowing us the option to travel regionally without being beholden to the automobile and the big corporations that make them. 

Indeed the $6 billion FDOT has told us must be spent on Express Lanes would be a great start to accomplishing those goals and more. We can build a regionally comprehensive mobility overhaul and we must if we are going to compete with the rest of the United States of America and much of the developed world.
Evidence lays most recently in the Tampa Bay region not making the list of the top 20 regions under consideration for Amazon’s 2nd headquarters. Tourists and visitors alike gawk when they see our lack of mobility options.
According to the Tampa Bay Times, “Out of the country’s 30 largest metro areas, Tampa Bay ranks 29th in four of six common ways the federal government measures public transit coverage and usage. The other two ways, we rank dead last.”
We can and must build in mobility options that will serve to enhance community identity rather than erode those identities as interstate expansion continues to do. Allowing for safer communities will help to build stronger cities. With stronger cities comes a stronger and safer region and we can do that by holding public agencies and our local elected officials at the state and municipal levels accountable to meaningfully improving the quality of life of our region instead of sitting on the sideline watching the continued excavation of this hole we find ourselves in today.

We are fighting for a better future and these problems are incredibly complex, but every problem is an opportunity waiting to happen. A comprehensive regional mobility overhaul that serves all the people is essential to ensuring that the quality of life of our region improves rather than erodes before our eyes. Please, let’s stop digging.

Sam Gibbons, a regional planner and advocate for social and environmental justice, is a leader in organic food production systems. He is enrolled in graduate school at the University of South Florida’s College of Global Sustainability with a concentration in Sustainable Transportation and Sustainability Energy. He earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Economics and Public Policy from Florida State University. 

Like this opinion column? Want to share your vision for Florida? Write your thoughts in a column (800 words or so) and email to 83 Degrees.

To subscribe to our free weekly e-magazine, follow this link.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.