GETTING ON THE RIGHT TRACK
February 28, 2009
With 16 million GIs returning from World War II in 1945, the nation experienced a severe housing shortage.
One of the first to realize the potential of this market was William Levitt, whose family owned vast acreage in New York. He and his father and brother took what once had been a potato field and built inexpensive, mass-produced rental homes for veterans and their families. The development took off, spawning more building. Homeownership was offered in 1949 for $7,990, and in 1950 the ranch-style home included a carport. The suburbs were in vogue.
My own family reflected this trend. My parents loaded their Edsel station wagon with their three children and made the move from Waterville, Maine, to Tampa in 1963. They bought a ranch-style home in Temple Terrace - on land that once was covered in orange trees - and raised a family in a comfortable and safe subdivision.
In Hillsborough County, subdivisions flourished from the 1970s to recent times. We saw a cycle in our county repeated many times across the state - massive subdivisions built where agricultural land once stood. As the subdivision fills, an adjacent shopping center is built, replete with a grocery store, video rental outlet and drugstore. More retail begins to dot the main artery leading to the subdivisions that continue to be built along increasingly traffic-clogged roads. Then, a major mall is built, anchored with big-box stores.
Traffic continues to worsen, and some residents move farther out to escape the congestion. Their new subdivision may offer quiet for a few years, but eventually the same pattern of development invades the new community.
This is Florida - post World War II to the 21st century.
Though Florida has relied on this model of suburban sprawl for decades, Wall Street and mortgage brokers took the concept of homeownership and credit to a new level in the first decade of the 21st century - lending money to people who could not afford to pay it back. A home went from a sentimental place to raise a family or find peace at the end of the day, to a commodity, an investment, something to "flip." Suburbs grew at a feverish pace; purchasers often ranged from speculators or ordinary people buying beyond their means.
In 2008, this false economy came crashing down, leaving a global wake of financial disaster that will entail years of painful recovery. Suburbs are filled with abandoned homes, dotted with foreclosure and for sale signs, and once-manicured lawns have turned brown, conveying the gloom that permeates the economy.
Lessons To Be Learned
Our recent economic meltdown may very well spell the end of an economy that has flourished only through the ebb and flow of construction. We have consumed vast agricultural lands, destroyed environmental wetlands and have created a complete dependency on the automobile. The lessons we take from this crisis will determine the investments we make and the economic fate of the Tampa Bay region.
A second event that also occurred in 2008 was the price of gas rising to $4 a gallon. This resulted in a near panic among people who saw the filling of their gas tank consuming a larger portion of their paycheck. Most of our cars are gas-guzzlers, and most people live many miles from their jobs. What we learned from this period was that the price of oil is controlled by global forces beyond our control. Further, that our level of oil consumption in the United States far outpaced that of other nations. And finally, this development has locked us into a pattern of consumption that is not sustainable.
So what do we take from these dual events? Do we continue the same pattern of development and consumption, or is this calamity a time to reassess our economic future and the transportation options made available to our residents and visitors? How will we grow in the future - what kind of businesses should we attract to our region?
What's The Answer?
I believe the creation of a new economy and development patterns for the region rest with the building of light rail.
Light rail is a modern train with multiple stations that transports passengers from where they live to where they work and play. The train stations are not traditional stops - they are vibrant centers of commerce, places of private-sector investment that create jobs and livable environments. This type of system is found in Denver, Dallas, Charlotte, N.C., Minneapolis and Salt Lake City. In fact, every major metropolitan area of the country has made an investment in light rail except Detroit and the Tampa Bay area.
Transit-oriented development is key to our new economy. The private sector works with government and the community in building neighborhoods at certain station locations. People live along rail lines - ride the rail to work - and do not need cars.
Office development is combined with residential, hotels, manufacturing, retail and urban amenities. For example, in Minneapolis, a $1 billion transit-oriented development project includes a 2-acre urban park.
In our region, the seven-county Tampa Bay Area Regional Transit Authority has developed a long-range master plan that relies heavily on light rail for the more populated counties and commuter rail for other parts of our region. One part of the light rail master plan is ready to be implemented: the Hillsborough Rail Plan. The rail would be built in four segments: the University of South Florida to downtown; the university north through New Tampa to Pasco County; downtown to West Shore; and West Shore through the airport to Linebaugh Avenue. The building of the rail would be predicated on a much-enhanced bus system throughout the county so that people could easily get to the rail or use buses for their commute. This system is designed to be the start of a regional system with connections to Pinellas and Pasco counties and eventually the entire region through a combination of light rail and commuter rail.
USF Line Is First Step
The Tampa Bay region should be a center for ideas and innovation. We need to provide an environment to employers so that a job in Tampa or Pasco cannot be shipped overseas. The first light rail line from the University of South Florida to downtown provides a tremendous opportunity to capitalize on the research capabilities of H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center & Research Institute and the university, to build upon biomedical and technological investments. Transit-oriented development projects could bring together new investments in green technologies and 21st century industries.
None of this will happen overnight. A referendum for a 1-cent sales tax needs to go on the ballot in November 2010 so that local government can pay for its portion of the rail and an expanded bus system. The federal and state governments will not contribute without local support. Typically, rail systems are built with a 50 percent contribution from the federal government, 25 percent from the state and 25 percent from local government. For decades, Bay area residents have been paying for rail with their federal tax dollars - we have been investing in communities across the country, not our own.
Our investment in light rail gives us an opportunity to embrace a different economic foundation and way of living.
Sixty-four years ago, William Levitt saw opportunity in a large work force eager to start new, post-war lives. In 2010, we can seize an opportunity for a new economy brought about by a meltdown. Our future rests not with our short-term reaction to this crisis, but with our long-term planning and investment in a new transportation system that will bring jobs, a cleaner environment and a smarter way to live for residents.
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