Getting up to speed on mass transit

By Pam Iorio, Special to the Times
In Print: Sunday, May 9, 2010

Mass transit. For some it is a reality of everyday life, their only option to get to work, to church, to the doctor or the grocery store. For most of us in Hillsborough County and the Tampa Bay region, it is just a concept — something we have seen and used in other cities but not experienced here at home. Something that many of us don't believe we will ever use because we are wedded to our cars. Our growth patterns have supported the automobile, and our congestion grows worse by the year. And now mass transit will be in the forefront of a public policy debate this year that will culminate in a countywide referendum vote this November if the county commission agrees this week to put it on the ballot.

As the mayor of Tampa I see a city, county and a region with notable assets. We are a premier place to live and do business. Yet there exists a glaring deficiency — the lack of a modern and comprehensive mass transit system. Our bus system, HART, is poorly funded. Because of that, while its usage has risen over the past several years, it is not able to achieve the kind of coverage and variety of services it should be providing our diverse county. In fact, its funding continues to decrease because of the decline in value of the property tax base. A poorly funded bus system inevitably produces an inability to attract new riders, and its lack of expansion leads many in the community to doubt the viability of transit altogether.

We have an opportunity to reshape our mobility options this November. A one-cent sales tax can pay for a greatly expanded bus system, a new light-rail system and monies to widen and improve roadways. This investment can pay huge dividends for our county well into the 21st century. It will give all of us choices, take cars off the roads, attract private investment, produce jobs and improve our air quality. I am passionate about the importance of its passage because I see the construction of a modern transit system as critical to our future economic growth and quality of life.

Bringing light rail to our community may be a new concept in Tampa Bay, but it is not across the nation. In fact, the Tampa Bay region stands alone as one of the last major metropolitan areas in the country that has failed to build a modern transit system. We don't compare ourselves to New York or Chicago. These are very different cities of size, geography and history. But we are comparable to Charlotte, Phoenix, Dallas, Denver, St. Louis and Salt Lake City. All of these cities have approved sales tax referendums to build light rail and better bus systems. We are at least 20 years behind in building a comprehensive transportation system, and if we do not act now we will lose a competitive economic edge that is so necessary to produce jobs.

"Light rail" is a train that connects major activity and employment centers such as the airport, WestShore, downtown and the University of South Florida. Stations are usually about a mile apart with service every 15 minutes.

Light-rail stations have been magnets for private sector investment. Many stations promote mixed-use amenities such as multifamily housing, office and retail.

Phoenix's $1.4 billion investment has generated $5.9 billion in private investment along the alignment. Even more important, it shapes where high-intensity growth will go in the future — in Hillsborough County, along the 46-mile light rail corridors. Government can properly plan for greater density along the corridors. Shaping our future growth along these routes preserves every lifestyle for Hillsborough County residents: the rural stays rural, the suburban neighborhoods stay suburban, and for those who desire an urban lifestyle and may not want a car at all — that option will be available. This is a smart way for us to grow in the 21st century, and it is already a successful model in many similarly sized American cities.

The largest investment from the sales tax will be for a better bus system that provides a variety of targeted services. In addition to expanded local and express service, there will be neighborhood-focused services such as the trial flex service in Sun City Center, and a circulator system for downtown. Paratransit will assist our disabled population.

Parts of Hillsborough that have never enjoyed bus service before will finally have it available and accessible. The Hillsborough plan will ultimately link to the future plans of Pinellas and Pasco counties, making rail and efficient bus service truly regional.

One of the complaints about government in general is that it does not do a good enough job of planning ahead, of acknowledging future growth and anticipating the challenges that come with thousands of new residents. Our growth management record locally and statewide has been dismal. Over the past four decades, homes and businesses have sprouted up in far-flung reaches of the community, far away from large employment centers, making residents dependent solely upon the car. Roads have been built after the fact, and whether a road gets widened or not, congestion is the status quo.

We have an opportunity to change this trend. For once, we can think long-term, make investments that are lasting, congestion-proof and change our destructive growth patterns. For the young and old and everyone in between, this plan gives options — choices — something we haven't had before. Yes, it will take time to build this new multi-modal system and there will be significant initial cost. But doing nothing will cost our community much more.

I am supporting this investment because I know it will better our lives. Making progress, staying competitive, giving people options on how they want to live and travel — these are aspirations that have real meaning and add real value to our future quality of life.

Pam Iorio is the mayor of Tampa.
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