Tampa Bay often has hit roadblocks in its tortured quest to improve the region's transportation system. Two more popped up this week: Republican state Sens. Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg and Tom Lee of Thonotosassa, who poisoned promising legislation to put the region's transit efforts on stronger footing. They hurt their constituents and the regional economy by standing in the way of local control and smarter planning, and more thoughtful lawmakers should regroup and salvage this opportunity to move forward rather than remain gridlocked.
Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, and Tampa Bay business leaders are providing the regional vision that Brandes and Lee lack. Latvala's legislation, SB 1672, could help break the logjam on transportation by revamping a regional planning agency that has not fulfilled its promise. It would downsize the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority from the existing seven counties to four: Pinellas, Hillsborough, Manatee and Pasco. A smaller footprint would allow TBARTA to better concentrate on congested urban areas, and the bill directs the agency to "plan, implement and operate" transit options for both passengers and freight. This sharper focus and greater sense of urgency is essential if the area is to unclog the choking traffic that strangles Tampa Bay and limits its potential.
Enter Brandes and Lee, who are no fans of rail or of Latvala. They conspired Monday at the Senate Community Affairs Committee to destroy Latvala's bill with an amendment aimed at throwing sand in the gears and inflaming the urban-rural divide over rail. Their changes would add Hernando County back into TBARTA and require that any proposed rail project be the subject of still another feasibility study. To ensure TBARTA remained neutered, their changes would require any plan for rail be approved by the Metropolitan Planning Organization in each county being served — and the Legislature. As for the cherry on top, TBARTA would be barred from advocating any rail plan put before the voters or any government authority.
The committee approved the changes, and Lee all but gloated as Latvala left the room. So much for regional cooperation.
These are all poison pills, of course. Adding Hernando back into the mix now would dilute the focus on urban traffic congestion and make it harder to reach consensus on designing and paying for any transit, from express buses to light rail. Forcing local communities to get Tallahassee's permission and neutering TBARTA are just more roadblocks to progress on a regional transit plan. Tampa Bay is working on its own to expand mass transit options in large part because Tallahassee hasn't helped; forcing cities and counties here to seek permission for rail from the state that promotes road-centric transit is ridiculous. So is silencing the very agency that exists to offer smart transportation options.
Brandes' tactics are not surprising. He is a vocal critic of rail and argues the future is all in rideshare and driverless cars. In the real world, Tampa Bay residents have few options beyond their own vehicles. That's why thousands of residents routinely are backed up in traffic on the Howard Frankland, the Gandy and the Courtney Campbell bridges, the area's interstates and the feeder roads that are choked beyond imagination.
Lee should know better. He is a former Senate president who should understand the importance of looking beyond his own district and planning for the future. But he is no longer in Senate leadership, and the independence he views as liberating has become destructive for Tampa Bay. Only a tie vote in another Senate committee Monday stopped Lee's effort to kill a program to allow professional sports franchises to qualify for state money for stadiums, which the region will need to keep the Tampa Bay Rays. And Lee has floated unsubstantiated allegations of "potential public corruption" at Tampa International Airport and called for the Senate to require an audit, which Latvala blocked.
As Latvala pointedly notes, Tampa Bay's business community is more progressive in its thinking about transportation than many politicians. As much as Lee and Brandes try to confuse the point, this issue now is not about rail but about creating a viable agency to bring about regional solutions. TBARTA is too big and politically hamstrung to make a dent in any timely way. It needs a sharper point, more local accountability and a game plan to rally around. The state already is studying options for easing the area's gridlock. They could be bus, rail, express lanes or another option. Most likely, it will take a combination of several types. But it's as inappropriate to take rail off the table now as it would be to take off roads. The state analysis is due next year, and lawmakers should use this window to build a regional transit agency ready to act.
With two weeks left in session, the challenge now is to revive the TBARTA bill and restore its original intent. The Tampa Bay Partnership, the region's leading business group, has played an important, visible role in making the economic case for the legislation. Latvala is headed in the right direction, and he has the area's best interests in mind. If this effort dies, blame Brandes and Lee for forcing Tampa Bay to remain stuck in traffic and mired in its petty political posturing.