Mayors from the Tampa Bay region’s three largest cities, Tampa, St. Petersburg and Clearwater, all acknowledged crippling deficits in the region’s transit connectivity and growing traffic congestion during a state of the region talk at a Suncoast Tiger Bay luncheon in St. Pete Thursday filmed by WMNF Community Radio.
Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the only mayor who now has the benefit of a dedicated revenue stream for transit and transportation improvements in his city, encouraged leaders from his neighboring cities to follow Hillsborough County’s lead in tackling the issue without relying on governments to do it.
“I thought up until November that one of my biggest regrets leaving office was that I was not going to be able to make headway on the transportation issue,” Buckhorn said.
But that fear was alleviated November 6 when Hillsborough County voters overwhelmingly approved a 1 percent sales tax to fund sweeping transit and transportation improvements.
Similar issues in both Pinellas and Hillsborough counties fell flat in 2010, 2014 and 2016 with voters rejecting sales tax increases in the first two and Hillsborough County Commissioners flat out denying efforts to take another stab at it and failing to put the issue before voters again.
Hillsborough’s recent success, he implied, is a huge opportunity for Pinellas. Pointing out that Hillsborough County voters voluntarily agreed to tax themselves.
“That was a decision that the voters were willing to live with and a price that they were willing to pay largely I think that because of the pain threshold in my county had been reached,” Buckhorn said. “It was affecting our quality of life. It was affecting everything that we did, and everyone knew that it was a problem.”
St. Pete Mayor Rick Kriseman and Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos agreed that the time for action within the citizen-led community has come.
“We need to incorporate the good things that [Hillsborough] did and eliminate the bad things that we did [in 2014],” Kriseman said.
The Monday morning quarterbacking that occurred after the Greenlight Pinellas initiative crashed and burned at the ballot box was fairly universal — the plan failed to make a case for raising sales tax 1 percent for all residents. It earned bipartisan support from almost all of the county’s elected officials and was overwhelmingly well-received among the business community, but for the average resident who didn’t use nor wanted to use transit, it was just wasted money.
That’s where the three laid out a hopeful vision for what could happen in Pinellas — a move that would seal the region’s chances to provide regional connectivity options that, today, are grossly lacking.
“My only recommendation to you is that it not be top down. [Let government] step out of the way. We’re going to need you for the implementation, but we don’t need you right now,” Buckhorn said. “We need our neighbors to know that this is not a U.N. plot. If we don’t do something about transportation we will kill the goose that laid the golden egg and my kids and their kids will have significantly less quality of life.”
Cretekos, who often laments his city is left out of regional conversations, said the issue is plaguing his town too. Traffic to Clearwater beach is nearly unbearable at times. Transit to the places his residents need to go — the airport, Tampa and St. Pete — are either inaccessible or severely lacking in reasonable convenience.
“We need you [the residents] to make sure that people understand that local government needs help to provide this type of infrastructure,” Cretekos said referring to additional revenue.
The mayors tackled a variety of issues during the approximately 1-hour question-and-answer session ranging from economic development to affordable housing.
And of course, baseball.
Does the Tampa Bay region have a baseball team in 2030?
That was the question levied by Joni James, an executive with the Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg.
Cretekos jumped at the question to a cacophony of laughter.
“The Philadelphia Phillies will still be in Clearwater. The Dunedin Blue Jays will still be in Dunedin,” Cretekos half-joked. “Yes, we’re still going to have baseball.”
Of course, that’s not what James meant. For years the Tampa Bay Rays have been working on identifying a cite new stadium location. But even after they were finally given the go-ahead to look in Hillsborough County and assembled enough land in Ybor City to make that vision a reality, the plan tanked because the team didn’t think Hillsborough’s offer was good enough.
“I think they want to be in the Tampa Bay region. It’s a profitable region for them,” Buckhorn said. “The question becomes where and who pays for it?”
Buckhorn suspects the reason the Rays passed on Hillsborough County’s complicated offer to fund half the cost of a new stadium through the use of private investments was precisely that it was too complicated.
He said a potential deal isn’t entirely dead, it’s just in need of resuscitation.
“If it’s not in Tampa I’m going to be very supportive of what Mayor Kriseman will embark on soon,” Buckhorn said. “He’s got a wonderful opportunity with 80 acres to do something magical.”
On that, Kriseman beamed.
“I have said from the beginning … that I felt that the Tropicana Field site still made the best sense. I still think it today,” Kriseman said.
But, he added, if baseball turns out to not be in the cards after the Rays contract to play ball in Tropicana Field expires in 2027, the city will be OK.
“It gives us a huge opportunity that a lot of other cities don’t have,” Kriseman said.
Having that much land right next to a downtown core is rare and an opportunity Kriseman said the city would not squander. It’s a place, he said, where economic development can boom, jobs added and affordable housing addressed — and those are all benefits the site has whether it includes a baseball stadium or not.