Commuting is nearly a full-time job for Sabrena Lloyd of Tampa. She spends 30 hours a week on a bus going to and from her job at Tampa International Airport. St. Petersburg auto mechanic Charles Capdevielle spends three hours every day on the bus to reach his job in Largo. A Pinellas student spends four hours a day on buses to attend St. Petersburg College. They are the faces of everything wrong with public transportation in Tampa Bay, which will never reach its potential without a modern transit system.
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An exhaustive account by the Tampa Bay Times published last Sunday chronicled the region's long history of failure on transit and the profound consequences to residents, employers and the economy. For a region that aspires to be great, this is what holds us back.
The Times documented that Tampa Bay spends far less on transit each year than any other major metro area. It is the only Top 20 metro region to spend less than $213 million annually. While Tampa Bay ranks 17th in population, it ranks 29th among the country's 30 largest metro areas in four of the six common ways the federal government measures public transit coverage and usage (and ranks dead last in the two remaining areas). Pinellas and Hillsborough have drawn up more than a dozen plans over the decades to close the gap, but local leaders have scrapped almost every one. The result, according to the analysis by the Times' Caitlin Johnston and Eli Zhang, is that other areas of similar size have invested and moved forward while the transit network in this region does far less to move people than those in virtually every other similarly sized place in America.
The system lags by almost any metric. The area's transit system reaches the same number of jobs as places like Boise, Idaho — except it serves five times as many people. Almost every other Top 20 metro has at least 600 buses. This area, with about 360 buses, has the fewest. Per capita spending is a fraction of what other areas spend. At $57, it is on par with Sheboygan, Wis. And the bay area's mediocre spending cannot be explained away by the lack of a rail line; other areas with fewer people spend millions more each year on bus service.
Many of the transit initiatives that failed were hobbled at the start, crafted by committees with a lack of vision and sold to voters with public relations campaigns that never succeeded outside the urban core. A 2010 Hillsborough referendum was supported by city of Tampa voters but opposed by county voters. A 2014 Pinellas referendum narrowly lost in St. Petersburg but was soundly defeated everywhere else. Yet the Times report also shows that tired arguments by transit opponents that Tampa Bay's geography and density are not suited to mass transit are not viable.
A University of Utah study found 11 other major metro areas, including Phoenix and Dallas, all rank worse than the bay area in the combination of density and sprawl, yet those areas have transit systems that outrank Tampa Bay's. Tampa and St. Petersburg are growing downtowns and looking for new options for regional transit. Even conservative statistics show hundreds of thousands of people in the four-county region cross county lines to work every day. The bay area bridges, which once symbolized the divide, are becoming a tortured shared experience and an icon of regional identity. Look no further than the recent regional effort that succeeded in having the Florida Department of Transportation agree to build an underpinning for rail on the new northbound span planned for the Howard Frankland Bridge.
The leaders of both Tampa Bay bus systems are doing what they can with their limited means, but they cannot provide robust service without a significant investment of more public money. That reality has sunk in even among some Republicans who opposed the latest transit plan in Hillsborough. And local leaders are taking the smart approach by avoiding a political fight at the outset over rail and focusing on the broader need for more transit options of all sorts, including better bus systems. There may be a role for autonomous vehicles, too. But the conversation should focus on creating a multitude of ways to move people and goods more efficiently. Focusing on rail, or autonomous vehicles, is a stall tactic. A plan should incorporate all transit modes that work to build the broadest base of public support.
The region's elected leaders also need to show more creativity and follow-through. Several Republicans who opposed the Go Hillsborough plan last year that never made it to voters said the initiative wasn't comprehensive enough. These same leaders had years to shape Go Hillsborough for the better. That didn't happen, and they cannot now distance themselves by feigning disappointment with an outcome that happened on their watch.
Local leaders also need to make a stronger connection between good transit and good jobs. The cities of St. Petersburg and Tampa have already drawn attention to the role that mass transit plays in growing and enlivening the downtowns. But transit can maximize a region's entire workforce, creating a newly mobile marketplace for employers and upwardly mobile opportunities for workers who cannot afford a car or the costly rents of a prime location. The time, money and resources saved by cutting commuting times is returned to the community in the form of reclaimed wages, less congested roadways, cleaner air and other tangible benefits.
Voters in the region have shown they will vote to tax themselves to pay for investments crucial to the area's quality of life, from public safety and infrastructure to health care and education. It's past time to invest in transit. Other metro areas struggled through defeats, only to build and expand their mass transit systems. They are moving ahead of Tampa Bay, and this region cannot afford to remain stuck at the bottom of those transit lists if it wants to compete to be an attractive destination to live, work and play.
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