It’s no secret that one of the most significant problems dragging down the Tampa Bay-area economy is a lack of sufficient transportation options, as well as the lack of money to fund potential solutions.
Attempting to provide a partial solution are Tampa-area state legislators Dana Young and Jamie Grant, who publicly discussed their bill that would provide $25 million for the recently revamped Tampa Bay Area Regional Transit Authority (TBARTA) in what is being called “innovative” transportation options.
“We think it makes a lot of sense to see how quickly we can put innovative solutions out on our roads at a cost-efficient way to our taxpayer,” said Grant, who is sponsoring the bill (HB 535) in the House. He hopes that the funding would “leverage the innovation” that is occurring when it comes to developments like Automatic Vehicles (A/V), ride-sharing, ferries and Bus Rapid Transit.
Young says the proposal (SB 1200) would repurpose $60 million annually out of a $240 million existing rail fund and would be labeled the Statewide Alternative Transportation Authority. Of that $60 million, $25 million would go to the Tampa Bay area (and be administered by TBARTA), $25 million would go to Miami-Dade County, and the remaining $10 million would be allocated to projects throughout the state that are ranked by the state Dept. of Transportation. There would have to be local funding to match the state grant, though the specifics of how that will work out is still being considered, Grant said.
One thing officials gathered at the news conference that was held outside the Tampa Convention Center were adamant about is the money would not go toward funding any light-rail projects.
“What we don’t want to be is SunRail,” Grant said, referring to the commuter rail system started up in Orlando three years ago. “What we don’t want to be is a local community having a train that costs us more money to print a ticket than it would to give away the ride for free.”
In fact, the bill takes funding currently going toward SunRail and redirects it to the Tampa Bay and Miami regions.
“I think we have to look at a whole constellation of different ideas in Tampa Bay, and not just locked into the old idea that rail is the only way. Because rail is not the only way,” said James W. Holton, the president of Holton Companies. Holton is Gov. Rick Scott’s hand-picked choice to head TBARTA.
“There are numerous other ways to do it,” Holton added. “And potentially the combination of a lot of different modalities is where we want to go.”
Created a decade ago under former Gov. Charlie Crist, TBARTA is a regional transportation agency through the seven counties of the Greater Tampa Bay area. But TBARTA always struggled due to a lack of significant funding from the Legislature.
Reconfigured in the 2017 Legislative Session as a smaller agency (though not much smaller; now consisting of five counties — Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco, Manatee, and Hernando) with an emphasis on transit, TBARTA still did not get additional funding.
Legislation sponsored by Sarasota Republican Rep. Joe Gruters (HB 2451) to fund the agency with $1 million has been introduced for the 2018 Session.
“I’m thrilled to hear about this legislation,” gushed St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman. “As a member of TBARTA, it’s one thing to come up with a plan, but if we don’t have the resources to see that plan implemented, then we’ve all spent a lot of time and energy not really moved the ball at all.”
While additional funding would not go toward light rail, an ongoing project studying transit options for the Tampa Bay region paid for by FDOT released their top five recommendations back in September. The number one ranked option was a light-rail system from Wesley Chapel to the University of South Florida Tampa campus and on to St. Petersburg.
Young said the proposal would not interfere with other transit studies.
“We’re not taking anything off the table for traditional projects that would be funded in a traditional way through the FDOT five-year plan,” she said. “What we are doing is providing an additional fund that we are going to dedicate to innovative, alternative transportation projects.”
Even if the bill passed the Legislature in the 2018 Session, nobody would see those funds for years.
According to a news release issued after the news conference (but not mentioned during it), “funding for TBARTA and other statewide projects through the authority will not be available until the 2021-2022 fiscal year.”
The bill has already passed through one committee in the House.
(Photo credit: Kim DeFalco).