Finally, a clear vision of roads, rail
The regional transportation plan unveiled Friday is an exciting departure from the piecemeal approach that has long frustrated commuters and hurt commerce.
The seven-county map shows preferred routes for light rail, express buses and managed highway lanes. Together the projects are a realistic assessment of what could be done over the next 25 years to tie the region together and help it achieve its economic potential.
It correctly envisions building on what already exists instead of pushing more development into areas currently lacking highway access.
"It's about where and how we're going to grow," says Bob Clifford, executive director of the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority.
Lack of clarity on that issue in recent years has fueled regional rivalries and citizen mistrust. The TBARTA plan, which still awaits final public review and official approval, will go a long way toward getting everyone working together with confidence and energy.
The proposal doesn't say how to pay for some $25 billion in improvements. What taxes to levy, if any, will be a local political decision that voters and elected leaders in individual counties must make.
But taxpayers now can have confidence that whatever major improvements they buy will fit into a larger plan and not dead-end at a county line.
And though high, the price is not outrageous. The area will qualify for more federal assistance, and some of the costs will be covered by existing taxes, possible tolls on highway lanes, and ticket sales on trains and buses. Shelton Quarles, former Bucs star and chairman of TBARTA, points out that when divided per household, the maximum amount additional new local taxes isn't expected to exceed $2.40 a week.
It's a fair price for needed improvements that will be within a half mile of most of the region's jobs.
What is missing from the map is as significant as what is on it. There are no super highways knifing through residential neighborhoods. There is no bypass through rural eastern Hillsborough, no fanciful ferry routes across the bay, and no statewide rail system that exists on paper but has never won the necessary political support.
The map is what the local public said it wanted in some 400 meetings held throughout the region. It includes light rail in the urban core to link Wesley Chapel with USF, downtown Tampa, the Tampa airport, Clearwater and St. Petersburg. Express buses are foreseen on I-75 and I-275 and bus rapid transit between Sarasota and Bradenton. Express buses are also mapped all the way to Crystal River in the north and Venice in the south.
The high quality of the product now on display is partially the result of smart improvements made to the law creating TBARTA two years ago.
Original proposals would have abolished the Tampa-Hillsborough Expressway Authority and taken its tolls, largely paid by Hillsborough residents. Such a money grab would have created mistrust.
Another flaw we warned about two years ago would have given the regional board power to override local growth rules. And as first proposed, the authority would have been run by unelected appointees.
The agency is working smoothly now because lawmakers were willing to put us taxpayers ahead of developers and other special interests.
The agency is controlled by elected leaders, including Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio and Hillsborough Commission Chairman Ken Hagan, who understand the folly of trying to collect taxes in one area to pay for improvements somewhere else.
The authority is functioning as most of its supporters envisioned. It provides a regional forum where the biggest transportation issues are discussed openly and, as the new map shows, thoughtfully resolved.
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