Today, the Board of County Commissioners voted and agreed to approve the formation of a new policy group consisting of the county's three elected mayors — who represent Tampa, Plant City and Temple Terrace — as well as officials who lead other major agencies in the county (like HART, the Aviation Authority, the Port Authority, and the Expressway Authority).
The group will be led by outside consultant Herb Marlowe, who said the guiding principals will be to find solutions that create "a significant rate of investment and truly add value," because only then can there be funding.
Commissioner Mark Sharpe and others also said the county must do more to shore up its reputation as being one of the most dangerous areas in the country for pedestrians and bicyclists.
Transit supporters eagerly anticipated today's meeting, and many of them showed up wearing "Try transit" stickers. Kevin Thurman and Brian Willis, two of the founders of Connect Tampa Bay, spoke up for an increase in dialogue for hard deadlines. Connect Tampa Bay is the nascent pro-transit group that has engaged the public for the past several months, hoping to get the issue back on the forefront with local elected officials.
Willis told commissioners that discussing light-rail in Tampa Bay should no longer be theoretical. He said on the other side of the I-4 corridor, Orlando is building a SunRail system, and there is a flood of money going into transit-oriented development where that system is being constructed.
"We're not talking about Manhattan, we're talking about Orlando," he said.
Debbie King with the Florida Consumer Action Network asked the commissioners to do three things: continue the conversation, work on safety for pedestrians and cyclists, and set up concrete deadlines that will continue to move the public conversation.
Underlying the discussions, though, remains the bogeyman for fiscal conservatives — the fear that the issue is simply a stalking horse for light-rail to go back on the ballot (as this blog post connotes). This idea brought out several critics of the idea, like HART board member Karen Jaroch, who argued against the 2010 ballot measure.
Kenneth Roberts is one of the leaders of Citizens Organized for Sound Transportation, whose members are critical of any motions to revive a light-rail plan. Roberts cited the post referendum study commissioned by the Hillsborough County Metropolitan Planning Organization, which listed transportation as a top issue of concern with county residents, along with the top priority of improving roads and bridges. He also compared the huge disparities in cost that would come with building a Bus Rapid Transit line with light-rail, with the bus plan being dramatically less expensive.
There were many young people in the audience who said that improved transportation options were crucial to the area's development. In a rare form of bipartisanship, the heads of the Tampa Bay Young Republicans and Hillsborough County Young Democrats joined together in composing a letter of support — which they handed off to the board — that encouraged increased dialogue for transportation.
Sharpe earned plaudits from some of his colleagues for his leadership in bringing the issue back to the board. Sharpe said there are "no preset conditions other than to recognize what is obvious: We have a serious problem."
Other commissioners agreed with him on a public relations level. If you remember, the county and city were mocked mercilessly last year during the Republican National Convention for the lack of transportation options, and then there are the desultory rankings when it comes to safety.
Meanwhile, as Hillsborough has dawdled on the issue, Pinellas County officials have moved forward on the issue of light-rail. The Board of Pinellas County Commissioners recently voted to place a measure on the November 2014 ballot that would raise the sales tax to begin construction of a light-rail system.