More relevant than you might think
May 2, 2010
You might not think Tampa and St. Louis have much in common in the realm of transportation.
However, St. Louis is speeding ahead with plans to expand the area's transit system after voters recently approved a sales tax increase to support and extend bus and light rail service. It passed with an impressive 63 percent despite a troubled economy, unrest about local property taxes and energetic opposition by local tea party activists.
Even those not expecting to be frequent riders recognized the importance of good transportation to the economic health of the metro area as whole. An earlier defeat of a similar measure made that point obvious when the transit agency was forced to reduce bus and rail service.
Even nonriders felt the impact. Routines were disrupted because office workers, medical staff, custodial crews and transit-dependent employees could not get to work. No wonder, then, that some of the most enthusiastic supporters of the measure were employers, hospitals and universities.
St. Louis - my home for eight years before returning to Tampa - is a community with a long, deep love affair with the car. Until recently, Ford, General Motors and Chrysler had large assembly plants operating in the region. It ranked second only to Detroit in the automobile and related manufacturing industry.
It also is marked by urban sprawl. A 2009 Brookings Institution report ranked St. Louis eighth among regions with the most decentralized employment, a reflection of decades of central city abandonment (a trend that is now reversing).
For the record, Tampa was ninth among those with the most centralized employment.
So how does light rail operate in St. Louis? MetroLink opened in 1993 and has expanded four times. With each new line or extension, ridership has grown exponentially, and projections have been exceeded since Day One. There were almost 20 million boardings in each of the past two years on the 43-mile system.
Washington University at St. Louis provides unlimited transit passes to its students, faculty and staff, which minimizes the cost of (and land devoted to) parking while reducing campus congestion.
Travelers arriving at Lambert Airport can easily and inexpensively get to downtown, the Clayton business district, the prestigious BJC Medical complex and higher-density residential neighborhoods such as the Central West End.
The St. Louis Cardinals estimate that 15 percent to 20 percent of baseball fans arrive via the light rail station across from Busch Stadium, thus reducing roadway congestion on game days. And several new transit-oriented developments have emerged.
St. Louis is looking ahead to more stable funding and expanded service. Bus and rail lines are linked via a new multimodal transit center. The facility also serves Amtrak and will soon offer high speed rail service to and from Chicago.
It seems to me that by changing a few words here and there, we could be talking about Tampa and Hillsborough County.
Someone once said that the best time to plant an oak tree was 30 years ago. The second best time is - today.
Isn't it planting season here in the Tampa Bay area?
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