Top solution to begin to close regional inequities? Improve transportation in Tampa Bay

It’s a straightforward notion: Provide lower-income workers with reliable, fast public transit and they will be able to access more job opportunities and better pay.

Indeed, local officials and research out of the University of South Florida say that fixing a glaring transportation problem in the region -- a long-lagging transit system -- will help address a significant social and economic issue, a stark income gap.

Specifically, a report out of the Muma College of Business Center for Analytics and Creativity says better transit access and service will narrow the income gap, reduce the poverty level, improve economic mobility and enhance Tampa Bay’s economic competitiveness among a group of 20 peer metropolitan areas.

“Public transit needs to be a key factor for any region looking to reduce poverty and close the income gap,” says Shivendu Shivendu, the Muma College professor who oversees the annual E-Insights report. “People who are poor often do not have a car, so they cannot explore the job market or reach certain jobs. They can only look for things in their area, which may be lower wages and not offer opportunities to upgrade their skills. To help the urban poor, public transit is one of the key investments governments need to make.”

Shivendu says better service on existing routes, new routes, and capital investments such as bus rapid transit or light rail can all be part of a varied approach.
 
Sales tax monies sit in limbo

So, will 2021 be the time when plans for major bus and public transit enhancements in the Tampa Bay region move forward in earnest or another year stuck in neutral? Transit advocates thought they would have made headway by now after 57 percent of Hillsborough County voters in 2018 approved the All for Transportation one-cent sales tax for road, transit, bike, pedestrian, and other transportation projects.

The tax went on the books in 2019 but hundreds of millions of dollars collected so far sit unused pending a Florida Supreme Court decision in Hillsborough County Commissioner Stacy White’s lawsuit challenging the tax. The suit argues the tax referendum violates state law by giving the County Commission’s authority over spending decisions to an oversight committee.

Both sides presented their case back in February. A decision has yet to come down.
   
All for Transportation chairman Tyler Hudson, who is now on the Board of Directors of the county’s transit agency, HART, says he holds his breath every Thursday at 11 a.m. when the Florida Supreme County releases opinions. But Hudson says the 2018 referendum showed widespread voter support for investing in the development of a varied transportation network.

“If the Supreme Court says we can’t have the money, and we have to come back on the ballot in 2022, that’s what will happen,” Hudson says.

The sales tax would generate billions of dollars for transportation projects over its 30-year life span and serve as a dedicated source of local funding that Hillsborough County and its cities could use to leverage state and federal monies.

Hillsborough County Commission Chair Pat Kemp has beat the drum to improve and enhance public transit since she first took office in 2016.

“You have to have reasonable transit access where you can reach a job within 45 minutes from your home,” she says. “In other communities, frequent service is a bus every five minutes or 10 minutes. For our best routes, we have a bus every 15 minutes or 20 minutes. If you improve that, you improve ridership and get people to jobs. You can build more densely in the city, where people do not have to have a car. If they do not need a car or a second car, they can put that money into the local economy.”
 
Kemp feels the County Commission majority in place after the November 2020 election will prioritize transit funding.

“If we do not have the tax, I fully expect the new Commission will put forth a new referendum for 2022 that will look very much like what voters approved in 2018,” she says.
 
Big projects on the drawing board

Several ambitious projects in various stages of planning and consideration are on hiatus pending the Florida Supreme Court decision.

The City of Tampa plans to use the revenues to fund its share of a project modernizing and expanding its streetcar, a project that has already attracted a state match. The Florida Department of Transportation announced last week that it will contribute $67 million toward a plan to expand Tampa's TECO Line Streetcar, a proposed $234 million project which would add 1.3 miles to the existing 2.7-mile system connecting downtown to Ybor City.

HART is in the planning stages of a bus rapid transit system between downtown and the University of South Florida.

“It will go through east Tampa and there are impoverished areas of east Tampa that could see transformational opportunities from this,” Hudson says.

In addition to helping residents in the area access more job opportunities, Hudson expects a BRT line to attract development, including affordable housing, especially around transit stations.

HART has moved forward with the start of design and permitting work for a commuter ferry service linking downtown Tampa, St. Petersburg, MacDill Air Force Base, and south Hillsborough County.

Hillsborough County is also considering converting the CSX freight line to passenger rail, similar to SunRail in the Orlando area. The rail would link the USF area to downtown, with the potential for future expansion to Westchase, Carrollwood, Lutz, Wesley Chapel, Brandon, Plant City, and Southshore.

“It’s gold to me to have a congestion proof corridor like that,” Kemp says. “We have so much potential here with the water and the CSX line just sitting there. We could do so much more to move people in a better way. We have barely scratched the service.”

In addition to those plans, the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transit Authority (TBARTA), which takes a regional approach to transit planning, is looking at a three-county bus rapid transit system along Interstate 275 from Wesley Chapel to St. Petersburg. TBARTA spokesman Chris Jadick says a BRT system with dedicated travel lanes could get someone living in Tampa Heights to a job in St. Petersburg in a half-hour or less.

“Mobility can’t be limited by county borders,” Jadick says. “We see Tampa Bay as a region. We want transit connected as a region. A transit system that better connects you is recognized as something that can improve economic mobility by connecting you to jobs.”

Jadick says TBARTA estimates that in 2015, there were 18,000 households without a car within a ½ mile of the proposed I-275 BRT corridor. By 2045, TBARTA projects that number will grow to 32,000 households.

“There are a lot of people who would benefit now and we only expect the need to increase,” Jadick says.
 
Lots of work left to do

The region has some ground to make up to have an efficient, high-quality transit network.

An early 2017 analysis by the Tampa Bay Times showed the region ranked 29th out of the country’s 30 largest metropolitan areas in four of the six areas the federal government typically relies on to measure transit service and usage.

The Muma College report notes that Federal Transit Administration statistics show the Tampa Bay region ranking last among a group of 20 peer metropolitan areas for nearly a decade for the number of passenger miles driven per year per capita. The report also points out that the Raleigh-Durham, NC region rose from 18 to 10th in those rankings over the last decade. During that time span, voters in each of that metropolitan area’s three counties approved a sales tax increase to fund transit.

In their research, the Muma College team conducted a policy experiment in which bus ridership in the Tampa Bay region increases by 20 revenue miles per capita. In that scenario, Tampa Bay improves from 12th to sixth for the poverty rate among the group of 20 peer metropolitan areas. Its rank for income inequality improves from 15th to sixth and its position for economic mobility goes from 13th to third.

Shivendu, the Muma College professor overseeing the study, says the economic benefits of a top-notch transit system go beyond that.

“It will be good for the area,” he says. “Poverty will go down. There will be more development and redevelopment. Property and real estate prices improve. It can have a communitywide benefit.”
 
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Read more articles by Christopher Curry.

Chris Curry is a freelance writer living in Clearwater. Chris spent more than 15 years as a newspaper reporter, primarily in Ocala and Gainesville, before moving back home to the Tampa Bay Area. He enjoys our local music scene, great weather, and Florida's wealth of outdoor festivals.
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