Light rail is right path

Published Friday, April 24, 2009

If U.S. 19, the interstate system and the bridges cannot meet the Tampa Bay area's transportation needs now, what choices will the region face in the next 30 years? Double-deck the entirety of U.S. 19? Bulldoze more wetlands and neighborhoods for new toll lanes and wider interstates? Remove billions of additional dollars in private property from the tax rolls to replicate the rush-hour parking lots that are Dale Mabry Highway and Bruce B. Downs Boulevard?

Commuters, in the meantime, would sit even longer in traffic, away from their jobs and homes. There needs to be a better playbook — one that uses our taxes and time and the region's natural resources more efficiently. Finally, area leaders are putting a viable alternative on the table.

The plan for commuter rail and expanded bus service that the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority released Friday is a major step toward building a 21st century transportation system. The plan calls for building 103 miles of light rail service in Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties in the next 25 to 30 years. While the rail corridor is not set, it would run from Wesley Chapel south to the University of South Florida, downtown Tampa, the West Shore business district and into central and south Pinellas to downtown St. Petersburg.

While rail is the splashiest component, the improvements to bus service would cover four times as many miles as the rail route. TBARTA, created two years ago to integrate transit in seven Gulf Coast counties, would connect Citrus south to Sarasota counties with express bus service along existing major roadways, such as I-75, U.S. 19 and 41, and S.R. 54. Express buses would also connect Tampa with Plant City and Lakeland. The plan would cost about $25 billion to build and operate, or about $1 billion per year over the 25 to 30-year development cycle.

TBARTA has framed the right course for transit and proposed a doable, if ambitious, rollout for commuter rail. With the region's population expected to double by 2050, to 7 million, leaders need to find alternatives to the cost and waste of relying solely on roads. In the last decade, the delay in travel time in Tampa and St. Petersburg has outpaced the population growth rate by four times. Locally, working families spend up to a third of their household income on transportation and more than a 40-hour workweek every year sitting in traffic. This is great for the oil companies, but it does not help the region build incomes, grow the economy or sustain its quality of life.

TBARTA hit the right balance by recognizing that roads will continue to serve as a major component of transportation and frankly acknowledging that their proposal will not eliminate projected increases in traffic. The rail system, after all, will be fed by people making use of more frequent bus service along the major roadways. Offering people a choice beyond the car should help protect suburban and rural lifestyles by reducing the need for big roadways outside the urbanized areas. And rail offers more chances to use federal dollars to address many transportation needs now financed locally.

Local governments in the seven-county region will still need to finance the TBARTA plan. Hillsborough County looks prepared to hold a referendum in 2010 on a one-penny sales tax committed to transportation. Pinellas officials should consider doing the same. As the most developed county in the region, Pinellas has a particular interest in moving mass transit forward. Having two counties go to the voters simultaneously may boost the prospects that voters will embrace the concept. But it will not be easy in this recession to convince voters to tax themselves more. Area leaders have a solid plan — but now they must sell it to the public in plain, practical terms.

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