The Community Is Now Ready

By RAMOND A. CHIARAMONTE

Published: Feb 18, 2007

More than 12 years ago I predicted the experience of having a streetcar could change our community. Tampa dared to dream about a revived city center, followed its dream, and now our city center is transforming into something quite different.

Hundreds of millions of dollars worth of residential development along with three new hotels is occurring in the formerly underutilized Channel District. Thank you Mayor Greco for your vision.

Now a new dream is taking shape. Two months ago, the Hillsborough City-County Planning Commission voted to endorse the concept of rail and multi-modal transit in our communities' long-range future planning efforts.

Rail systems rely on federal funds that usually have been going to other cities. When we were bumped out of our place in line in 2002, all the planning work had been done for achieving federal approval. Our rail plans stalled and our money went to other cities.

Fast forward to the present. We are in a different world. Orlando developed a plan and funding for a commuter rail system with $250 million worth of state assistance.

What has changed in the Tampa Bay Region to justify new thoughts about rail?

Actually, quite a lot. Traffic has gotten much worse - I challenge you to find someone who does not agree with that statement - in spite of many improvements to area roads. Of large U.S. cities, Tampa has the third largest percent of daytime population growth, after Washington, D.C., and Atlanta, from incoming commuters. More than 150,000 people enter the city limits during the day for work, increasing the daytime population to more than 450,000 people.

Oil has become a very unpredictable commodity. Higher gasoline prices could threaten our very security, as well as our ability to compete with other communities that have alternative forms of transportation. Additionally, rapid growth is not only taking place in Hillsborough, the core county of the region, but in the seven surrounding counties that make up our community.

Some other things are also happening that point to a change in attitude about transit here in Tampa Bay. Our HARTline bus system has increased ridership 30 percent over a relatively short period of time. But buses cannot provide the comfort and smoothness of operation of a rail system.

Many organizations and leaders have recently started to take a second look at rail including the eight-county business alliance called the Tampa Bay Partnership, the Greater Tampa's Growth Management Committee chaired by local businessman Al Austin and, most significantly, Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio.

There are many other leaders and organizations looking at this issue and learning about what we need to do to make something happen in this area.

Other communities across the country have jumped on the trend toward building rail systems, not only as an alternative to rush hour traffic, but also to guide development into a more efficient, pedestrian-oriented development pattern that can provide housing for many people in many stages of their lives.

A rail system can lower overall cost for citizens because it lessens the need for as many cars in a family. Income that is now spent on an automobile - car payment, insurance, fuel and maintenance - could be used for housing costs, which have recently skyrocketed.

There are 41 cites that have existing or planned rail transit systems; 32 already exist. Tampa Bay is the 19th largest metro area and one of two metro areas without rail transit in the top 25, a dubious honor we share with Detroit. We are also one of the fastest growing communities in the country. This is not rocket science.

We are at the stage that we need to seriously put all our studies, plans, ideas, and energy together and make something happen. If you draw three-mile circles around Brandon and USF and two-mile circles around downtown and West Shore, you have an area that makes up 7 percent of the land area of Hillsborough County. In that 7 percent of the land area you have 20 percent of the population and 42 percent of the employment. Just connect the dots with locations that people live in and the system will work.

It often takes 10 years to get something in the ground. We have accomplished major projects before; we can do it again. We have a world-class airport built in 1971, we were the smallest city to be awarded a National Football League team in 1974, and we have hosted three successful Super Bowls, soon four, as well as other countless accomplishments.

We can do this if we work together. This is about quality of life, choices in ways of living, efficiency, land use patterns and future growth. It will be a new day in the Tampa area if we can make the dream come true.

Ramond A. Chiaramonte is assistant executive director of the Hillsborough City-County Planning Commission.


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