Why 2014 needs to be the year of transit improvements for Tampa Bay

As Pinellas County gears up for its 2014 transit referendum, neighboring Hillsborough County is still debating as to whether or not they hold a transit referendum vote during the same year, or delay it until 2015 or 2016. With efforts in Pinellas now kicking into high gear, we must make it clear to our elected officials in Hillsborough that 2014, MUST be the year of a regional vote for transit improvements for the Tampa Bay area! Without Hillsborough County being onboard, I strongly fear that the Pinellas vote has a much greater chance at failing should economic conditions change. Plus, if Hillsborough further delays its own vote, elected official may miss out on a crucial opportunity to round in new businesses that are attracted to cities with efficient transit systems. Besides, Hillsborough and Pinellas have worked together on many initiatives before, why should the issue of transit be any different?

I’m really hoping that articles, like this one published by the Tampa Tribune on July 21, 2013 will give Hillsborough officials a much-needed wake up call to seriously consider putting another sales tax referendum on the November, 2014 ballot, to coincide with Pinellas’ vote. If two counties are voting for transit improvements at the same time, it will prompt everyone to pay more attention to the issue at hand, that both counties need better transit…and need better transit NOW! Without better transit, the entire Tampa Bay area stands to lose out on its economic competitiveness with other metro areas like Jacksonville, Orlando, and Miami. In many ways, we are already seeing this happen! We must not let a mass exodus of businesses leave the Tampa Bay region because of the lack of meaningful public transit.

In the Tampa Tribune article that I posted a link to in the last paragraph, a serious problem is mentioned…new commercial developments. It used to be that developers were required to make upgrades to roadways that surrounded land that is to be developed so that the roadways could handle increased traffic. Unfortunately, recent changes to local ordinances and state laws have basically abolished those requirements, so developers are free to build whatever they want and don’t have to touch the surrounding roads at all. These changes alone will cause many Bay Area roadways to be choked to the point of eternal gridlock. One prime example mentioned in the Tampa Tribune article is a piece of land in the Lithia area (just east of Brandon) that is about to be developed. Many roadways in the outskirts of Tampa are only two lanes, so widening is required for the road to be able to handle increased traffic. If nothing changes with the area’s roads, traffic will be backed up for miles!

To help solve these types of problems, we can enact enhanced bus services, as well as light rail and commuter rail lines. However, this solutions will never come off paper unless we have more funding, which is why holding a referendum vote in 2014 is so crucial. Without a new dedicated funding source, both HART and PSTA, the respective transit districts in Hillsborough and Pinellas, stand to lose a lot of service in the next five years. An article published on July 19, 2013 in the Tampa Bay Times highlights the grim prospects of not having any further transit funding. PSTA alone would have to slash transit services by almost 30%, which would result in many existing bus routes losing OWL and weekend services, as well as service frequencies being rolled back to 60 minutes for most routes. In addition, both districts would be forced to impose steep fare hikes that have been imposed in transit districts in New York City, among others, in recent years.

The push for better transit in Hillsborough has recently been driven, in large part, by businesses, including those with young professionals…like myself. I truly wish that I can be able to commute to and from work each day from South Tampa to Brandon without having to deal with traffic jams or CSX freight trains. Howevever, without passenger rail and a more efficient bus system, I and many others out there have no other choice but to drive. And how much fun is that to have to be stuck in traffic each day? An article published on July 23, 2013 in the Tampa Bay Times points out the biggest problem tied into the lack of efficient transit in the Tampa Bay region, and that is businesses wanting to expand their horizons in Tampa, St. Pete, Clearwater, and other municipalities in the region. Many young professionals, like myself, want better transit. But without better transit, what other options do we have but to move away from the Tampa Bay region altogether? That’s what is happening right now! Many young professionals are fleeing Tampa because we don’t have an efficient transit system, they would rather move to Washington, D.C., Charlotte, Norfolk, Austin, or just about anywhere that has efficient transit systems, including some form of passenger rail service, in place.

It is for all of these reasons that 2014 MUST be the year that both Hillsborough and Pinellas commit to having a sales tax referendum that will better enhance public transit in both counties. Without this regional vote, the entire Tampa Bay region stands to lose out on economic competitiveness against other metro areas.

Note: This post was originally scheduled to be published on July 14, 2013. However, due to personal matters, I suspended all blog posts until further notice. As pressure continues to build to sway elected officials in Hillsborough County to hold a sales tax (transit) referendum in 2014, I thought that it would be the perfect opportunity to “strike the iron while it’s hot” as they say, and voice my reasoning as to why 2014 is so crucial to have both Pinellas and Hillsborough counties have their votes at the same time. If you’d like to comment on this post, please feel free to do so! But please be patient, as I will not be able to reply to comments right away.

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