Blogger’s Note: I originally intended to publish this post right after the first round of Go Hillsborough workshops. However, due to several problems, including my computer crashing in February, I had to basically start all over with writing this post.
Observations from the first round of workshops
On March 2, 2015, I had an opportunity to attend the first of four series of workshops being held throughout Hillsborough County. This first series, Understanding the Issues, allowed voters to voice what they believe the biggest concerns regarding transportation are. Below are a few photos from the South Tampa workshop that I attended.
While some out there may criticize this part of the process, specifically the “dots on the board” part, the public engagement process thus far has been pretty good from what I’ve been hearing. As I’ve told others on different occasions, we have to have a balanced approach to when it comes to improving our transportation system; which includes roadway fixes and upgrades, pedestrian facility improvements, and transit improvements. This engaging first phase of Go Hillsborough has allowed citizens to do just that, get involved and voice their opinions on what they feel is most important to them when it comes to transportation.
What I believe are the top priorities for Hillsborough
I now want to take a few moments to talk about what I feel are the top four priorities for Hillsborough County when it comes to improving its transportation system. These priorities I feel will provide the county with that balanced approach that it needs to be able to get a good foundation for the next generation transportation system going, while addressing issues that need to be resolved as soon as possible.
In an unranked order, here they are:
- Repair and improve our roads: This is something that needs to be taken into high consideration, because let’s face it, our roads are crumbling. We have tons and tons of potholes that are causing damage to our vehicles, which in=turn increase the chances of having to call your insurance company to file a claim that they might not even be able to cover, which in-turn leads to higher costs out of pocket to have to get your vehicle repaired.
- More new bus routes and improvements to existing ones: Hillsborough County has a huge bus system void that must be filled. Current funding levels however will not suffice, and in reality, will continue to force HART to only be able to make very small changes to its system just to maintain existing service. If another economic hiccup occurs, HART may be forced to slash service across the board, which is something that no one wants to see happen. Existing bus services need to be improved so that they can have more frequent service, and new routes need to be created to serve more people within the county, as well as across county lines.
- Pedestrian/Bike facility projects: Right now, many sidewalks and bike/multi-use trails are lying incomplete due to funding constraints, making it very frustrating for walkers, joggers, and bicyclists to get around safely. Not enough roads have bike lanes for the very same reason, and without further funding, this situation is likely to remain as such for a long while. If we want to turn around the negative trends here in Hillsborough that is…pedestrian involved vehicular accidents, then we need to work on getting these pedestrian/bike facilities completed.
- Modernize/Expand the TECOline: Many have complained that the TECOline is inefficient because it doesn’t run often enough, or to places where it really matters. Until the funding situation gets better though, we just can’t expect things to happen out of thin air. That’s why I feel that any transportation plan MUST include improvements and the eventual modernization/expansion for the streetcar. If we can show that this line can become viable, then I strongly feel that there will be much wider support for new light rail and commuter rail lines throughout the county.
The outcome from this first round
Now that I’ve given you my perspective on Understanding the Issues, here are the compiled results of what citizens thought were their top priorities during the first round. This report also includes results from the second round of workshops, called Exploring Options. The latter I will be blogging about very soon.
To summarize the the first round, each region of Hillsborough has very distinct needs. Not everyone is in favor of light rail, something we learned the hard way in 2010 and 2014. In areas within the City of Tampa, transit expansion, roadway fixes, and pedestrian facility improvements were in balance for the most part. However, roads seemed to dominate discussions in South, West, and East County.
Many challenges lie ahead…
Go Hillsborough aims to reach out to as many Hillsborough County residents as possible to get as much feedback as possible about the county’s transportation landscape. While this interactive outreach process is great, much still needs to be done to address and overcome the many challenges to remain in front of us. I will be addressing such challenges and concerns in this next section.
The stings of 2010 and 2014 (Campaign Failures)
It’s very evident that as Go Hillsborough progresses, that the repercussions of the failed 2010 and 2014 transit referendums are still very fresh in voters minds. One thing that I feel was greatly neglected in both campaigns was that the campaigns themselves pitched way too much on one thing, and not enough on the other elements. I also believe that not enough public outreach and engagement was conducted, which is something that Go Hillsborough is seeking to solve. These failures have resulted in voters not really knowing what they’re getting out of a transportation plan.
In the 2010 Hillsborough campaign, a lot of emphasis was placed on a robust light rail system that would take decades to materialize. Many voters felt that this system would do absolutely nothing for them and didn’t feel that they should have to pay a tax to fund something they will never use. Additionally, not enough emphasis was placed on engaging voters in what they wanted to see, and there was a huge lack of emphasis on improving the county’s bus system (although a full-build out of MetroRapid was included in the plans).
On top of the problems faced on the local level, there was widespread confusion over what the county was proposing, versus the federal High Speed Rail plan. Some voters thought that they were also voting for the bullet train, which was not the case, as it was a totally separate project. Fiscal conservatives took that opportunity of voter confusion to pitch that the entire plan was bad because it was pitching President Obama’s “flawed” transportation vision. To further compound the problem, was that the nation was still gripping from the repercussions of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression of 1929.
The failure of not one, not two, but three simeoutaneous county referendums aimed at improving transportation sent a very loud and clear message to transit supporters, that voters simply were not ready to add on additional taxes when the state of the economy was still in limbo. Although the scope of the three referendums were different, all three had their challenges of trying to reach out to a majority of voters and seemingly failed to do so. In the case of Pinellas specifically, where a robust transit system was the focus, the campaign did not go far enough to engage voters in what they wanted to see in an expanded transit system. And once again, too much emphasis was placed on light rail, something that fueled fiscal conservatives to lash out against the plan as a whole. In the case of Polk and Alachua, where roadway improvements were the focus (though Polk mixed in transit and roads in their plan), neither campaign gained universal support from voters, and from what I heard, many businesses were opposed to their respective transportation plans as well.
So with half of the Go Hillsborough outreach process finished, the question remains as to whether Go Hillsborough is doing enough to engage the voters. Based on my observations, I wil say a cautious “yes”, because while I think the interactive engagement process is a good start, I feel that turnout is going to play a huge role in the fate of the third round of workshops – Making Choices.
IS THE MEETING STRUCTURE DOING ENOUGH?
That depends who you ask. Personally, I believe that the first round of workshops was pretty good overall, but I strongly feel that county leaders need to step it up and get themselves involved more. I have already been hearing some criticism that county commissioners aren’t making it out to some of these meetings, and I believe that they should so that they can engage with the public and show their support for the process. This is extremely crucial as the Making Choices phase of the outreach process is now underway.
WHAT ABOUT THOSE WHO ARE UNABLE TO ATTEND?
While the first and third set of workshops are spread out in a manner by which many citizens have an opportunity to attend, the second and fourth rounds will only have four regional workshops. Not everyone will be able to attend the regional workshops due to distance, traffic, and working schedules. Additionally, the telephone town halls are only one hour in duration, which isn’t long enough to capture a whole lot of callers. I believe that there should have been even more meetings and longer telephone town halls (or more sessions). The latter is what the Pinellas 2014 campaign did well, was that they had several telephone town halls at times and days that were convenient for certain voters.
Capturing Key Demographics
Capturing key demographics is crucial to ensuring that any transportation plan gains widespread support. That is something that I feel that the last few voter referendum campaigns have failed to do.
UNDECIDED AND INDEPENDENT VOTERS
While Florida remains a largely Republican state, Central Florida has become known for a large swath of undecided voters that runs along the I-4 corridor. These voters, some Democrat, some Republican, and some Independent or Third Party; wind up not being properly informed during the election cycles and either vote last minute or sit out altogether. I feel that in both 2010 and 2014 that these voters were largely left out of the fray when it came to voter engagement for these transportation plans. It is very crucial that Go Hillsborough reach out to this bloc of voters because they will utimately make a huge difference in whether any sort of voter referendum, whether it be in 2016, 2018, or even 2020, passes or fails.
As I mentioned earlier, there were a lot of voters who felt in 2010 that they weren’t getting anything out of a light rail network that wouldn’t materialize for decades. I feel that while some of these workshops are allowing a wider reach into the suburbs, more needs to be done to actively engage these voters so that they have a clear idea of what they are being asked to support. We have to take into consideration that suburban residents may have a different mindset on transportation than those who reside towards the urban centers. Yes, no one likes to be stuck in traffic, and I think that is something we all share in common, regardless of where in the county that we live. But the key difference is that someone living in downtown Tampa may see light rail as an excelent element to a transportation plan, while someone out in Brandon may think of that same element as being wasteful because they might not ever be able to use it.
THOSE WHO ARE ON FIXED INCOMES
Those who are age 55 and older have an especially difficult time getting around as they continue to age. Having a fixed income is one of those huge challenges, and from what I’ve learned over the past few years, these are among the voters who may see additional taxation as being a very bad apple. While I believe strongly that improved public transit can greatly benefit seniors, including an expanded HARTplus Paratransit system, they want to see something that is clearly tangible before supporting a transportation plan. They want to see that any improvement to the transportation system will benefit them in making getting around a lot easier, quicker, and more cost effective.
With respect to those who are in my age range (I am 27), a lot of Millennials want to see more transportation choices so that we’re not forced to having to drive from A to B and get stuck in traffic. I think that more needs to be done to get Millennials engaged in the process, especially being that they too have busy schedules. Social media is a great start, but I believe that face to face meetings with elected officials would be a plus as well.
An effective competitive strategy is something that cannot be ignored. I strongly feel that the last few voter referendum campaigns failed to execute an effective competitive strategy and that this time around, if we mess up again, we’re not going to have another opportunity to convey a comprihensive transportation plan for not just the next several years, but the next several decades.
THE STATUS QUO IS NO LONGER ACCEPTABLE
Some people don’t realize that if we don’t build a foundation for a comprihensive transportation system now, that our region as a whole, will be set back not just 5 to 10 years, and I’m not even talking about 15 to 20 years, I am talking about being set back as a region for the next 30 to 50 years! That’s almost an entire generation that has to deal with flawed policies and mistakes made from the 1960s, 70s, 80s, and 90s. And yet no substantial progress will have been made to counteract that since. We cannot afford to let another 50 years pass us by with absolutely no progress in breaking the status quo. In fact, we are on track currently, if nothing changes in the transportation front, to become the next Detroit. Because sooner or later, companies will leave our region for other regions that have more robust transportation systems, including bus and rail. Detroit itself recently passed by Tampa Bay with the construction of its first modern streetcar line.
ADDRESSING THE OPPOSITION – NO TAX FOR TRACKS
Tea Party backed opposition group No Tax For Tracks (NTFT) was created in 2010 to combat the 2010 voter referendum in Hillsborough and seeks to shut down the entire process that is going on right now. NTFT is trying to convey the message of “Fix our Roads First”, citing that not enough county money is being allocated for roadway improvements. While I agree fully with NTFT’s leader in saying that we have to fix our crumbling roads, we cannot neglect the other elements in the transportation realm. We need to convey to NTFT that what they have in mind is not what many citizens of Hillsborough have in mind, which is to include improvements for not just roadway fixes, but for transit and pedestrian/bike facility improvements into a comprihensive transportation plan.
As the Making Choices portion of Go Hillsborough gains full steam, I strongly encourage you to attend an upcoming workshop, participate in a telephone town hall, and/or leave a comment on the Go Hillsborough website, social media pages, or their telephone comment line. At the very, very least, I ask that you please spread the word about Go Hillsborough with your friends, family members, and colleagues who reside in Hillsborough so that they can get involved. The bigger the participation, the greater the chances are that we will be able to lay out a foundation for a modern and expansive transportation network.