Tampa Bay Regional Transportation Summit
As I walked around outside the meeting room I was struck that most of the people attending wore suits and were by their name tags from someplace; municipality or business, not too many ordinary citizens like me. Though I did manage to sit next to a young woman without any affiliations and there was also an elderly black gentleman. But you definitely got the impression most people there had a professional interest in what was going to be said.
The first speaker was Joe Lopano, CEO of Tampa international Airport, who proudly proclaimed that Tampa was the number one airport in the country. He explained that there was a lot of innovation involved like the people mover between the main terminal and the air sides. He really gushed over them, actually, for reasons made clear later. Then County Commissioner, Mark Sharpe, gave a general rah-rah speech without really saying anything. This was followed by Stuart Rogel from Tampa Bay Partnership who stated transportation and education were what he considered the highest priorities.
Republican Representative John Mica-Fl then spoke by video and he is a big advocate of “fixed” transit as some like to call light rail. He bragged about federal funding he has obtained for Florida for the Sun Rail. He urged us to keep trying to get transit projects together so he could help get more federal funds for them. He even implored us to ignore the results of the referendum and to keep bringing it up and how it took other cities several attempts before passing some kind of local funding.
Next came a very interesting presentation from Rusty Roberts from All Aboard Florida, the privately funded venture to construct a passenger rail line from Miami to Orlando with stops in FT Lauderdale and West Palm Beach. He detailed how far along they were towards getting it running. I was impressed with all the level of competence their plans showed. I sincerely wish them success though I remain skeptical about if trains will make a profitable comeback as a mode of passenger transportation. There is a reason in the second half of the last century why passenger rail ridership decreased as highways and the travel hospitality industry made the car practical for long distance excursions along with the advancement of commercial airlines. Just one of the reasons why I was against the high-speed rail.
Mike Wacht discussed central Orlando’s Sun Rail, commuter line between area towns which is slated to have a total cost of 620 million dollars with 2/3 of that going to CSX for the tracks.(Which was way too much per mile I feel) I He gave a rousing story about the first phase and only time will tell how optimistic the predicted use will be. Also from Central Florida was Harry Barley with MetroPlan Orlando. He went over a plan to improve I-4 for 21 miles starting from the exit for Universal. According to him, two managed toll lanes in each direction will be added.
More user fees in the form of toll lanes was a recurring theme from this point and was emphasized by FDOT District 7 Secretary who warned that federal funds for transportation was unsustainable and that local municipalities would have to rely more on internal financing. This does seem to be in contrast to the attitude of the endless money spigot that Representative Mica displayed.
Up again was Joseph Lopano and he explained the new array of improvements for Tampa Airport. Specifically, they are going to move to an area south of the terminals all the rental car operations and connect it to there with a people mover. This will free up a lot of space in the long term parking garage for more cars to park which would then generate more revenue. With the new people mover at the new location it could also act as another drop-off and pick up point helping to decrease congestion at the main terminal. He went to say a hotel and office building could also be in the works for there, but I think he is overreaching. Just like his desire to extend the people mover to a “multi-modal” center in the Westshore area. This is why, I believe, was what was behind his earlier gushing over the airport shuttles. I don’t think he cares about light rail anywhere else. He did have a point about his complaint that there is no direct bus route between the airport and downtown.
The most fixed feelings I had occurred when Brad Miller, the CEO of Pinellas Suncoast Transit, spoke. In the first half he laid out a whole series of steps that would vastly improve the bus system including more routes that would run more hours. Then he had to claim that a light rail line was needed between St Pete and Clearwater to aid economic development. To pay for this on the 2014 ballot will a proposal to add a 1% sales tax for a decrease in property tax. He claims that this will only be $10 more per year on the average family because tourists will absorb a good portion of the increase.
Polk County weighed in with a brief look at a comprehensive plan resulting from a lot of customer input to connect his large county with many municipalities financed by a proposed 1 cent sales tax surcharge.
There were other speakers, but none more pertinent then Ronnie Duncan head of TBARTA. He first began by telling a story about a trip to Home Depot to buy a toilet seat and how he found so many different varieties and he brought out one to illustrate his point which was that transportation needed many different solutions. Variety was also a recurring theme throughout the morning. And to be fair he did talk about numerous types of transportation like freight and shipping. But what revealed his true intention was a slide during his presentation listing challenges to their plans. On the bottom was listed “Not convinced of light rail.” In a real Freudian slip he read it as “Not yet convinced of light rail.” And in a nutshell that seemed to sum up a subtle underlying mindset of a majority of the people in that room. Light rail was a forgone conclusion even if everybody doesn’t realize it yet.
But at the end of the summit the floor opened up for questions and I thought I would confront a little of their base assumption. I asked, “Could someone please explain how light rail is better in creating economic development than a bus rapid transit would servicing the same route?” Ray Chiramonte from Hillsborough Planning Commission answered by professing that it was the permanent nature of light rail that made it better. That people would know it was always there. Then he made it personal by talking about how he would love to work and live next to a rail station. He finished it up by bringing up variety and Duncan’s toilet seat as an analogy. I countered with “But there wasn’t a huge difference in prices for those toilet seats like there is between light rail and a metro rapid transit.”
Of course, he had no real answer since light rail costs at least 50 times per mile than a metro rapid transit. Just like his original reply was a lame cover-up for the fact that they want light rail not for transportation and the economic growth they talk about is really the millions of taxpayer dollars to be channeled to politically connected cronies for business redevelopment around the stations. The result of their intentions is for a sliver of the county to have a super expensive public transit while a few profit immensely from effort to herd more people into that corridor to try to ensure its use.
Concerned Hillsborough resident
Concerned Hillsborough resident
Thank you very much Eric for your insightful and truthful report of what really occurred at last Thursday's Transportation summit. This confirms yet again the same crowd continues to talk to themselves. We would like to know why HART wasn't there. Why was Hillsborough's local transit agency left out of this summit? Inquiring minds want to know.
But it's only in Tampa where our transportation leaders compare transportation to toilet seats.