Ray Chiaramonte is high on CSX and the Tampa streetcar as he takes over at TBARTA

Ray Chiaramonte copy

On his last day on the job as the executive directors of both the Hillsborough County MPO and the Planning Commission last week, Ray Chiaramonte learned that he would be immediately transitioning to a new gig – after being selected to become the next executive director of TBARTA, the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority.

The still very vibrant Chiaramonte had to resign from his duel gigs because he’d entered the county’s Deferred Retirement Options Plan known as DROP back in 2003. The county required him to step down because it sets a non-negotiable retirement date. However, TBARTA is not part of the Florida Retirement System.

“One thing I liked about TBARTA, and I did from the very beginning, is that they’re not constrained by a lot of rules like that MPO’s have to follow, ” Chiaramonte said on Sunday, quickly adding that there wasn’t anything wrong with those rules, but appreciates that TBARTA can actively sell projects that they believe in. “MPO’s aren’t set up to do that,” he says. “They’re not supposed to be lobbying or doing things of that nature, whereas I see TBARTA taking on (that role), saying ‘this is what we want to do in the Tampa Bay area and getting the counties behind and selling that to the Legislature and the feds’…to get funding for projects.”

TBARTA was created by then-Governor Charlie Crist and the Florida Legislature back in 2007. It’s charged with producing a regional transportation plan for the West Central Florida region consisting of Citrus, Hernando, Hillsborough, Manatee, Pasco, Pinellas and Sarasota counties.

Chiaramonte was a champion of the transit tax proposals proposed in Hillsborough County in 2010 and in Pinellas last fall that both went down to resounding defeats. In retrospect, he calls Greenlight’s loss “a positive measure actually,” saying it provides a necessary “reality check” for transit advocates. “We need to be very deliberate and careful with what we put out,” he says, adding that saying that both measures were “dynamic plans” that may have been too ambitious in scope. In particular, he says the central feature of the Greenlight Pinellas plan – a 24-mile light-rail network running from St. Petersburg to Clearwater Beach was – in retrospect, “a stretch.”

“I think we need to scale back a little bit,” he says. “It shouldn’t been be the dominant part of the plan.”

Regarding transit, Chiaramonte admits that Tampa’s historic streetcar wasn’t something he had been thinking about lately, but now welcomes the embrace of the long-troubled and expensive system by Tampa and Hillsborough County officials. “Then we started studying different technologies with modern streetcars, and how similar to light rail they are, but less expensive.” He says those streetcars don’t go as fast as a light-rail system, but doesn’t believe that’s a problem for a starter project being contemplated that would connect from Tampa International Airport to downtown Tampa. And he thinks the opportunity of acquiring federal dollars is easier for a system that already exists.

Another local asset that could be utilized he says are the various CSX train lines that are places throughout the Bay area. “I just think there’s some capacity on there that could be utilized in a different way, so I think that conversation with CSX for a long-term plan should be considered and looked at,” he says.

Chiaramonte applauds the meetings that County Administrator Mike Merrill has been conducted for several months with local neighborhood groups to understand what their needs are for transit. “You’ve got to get the citizens involved in a kind of a grassroots fashion, ” he said.

As series of town hall meetings being put on by the county to engage the public on what they want in a transportation plan in Hillsborough County are set to begin later this month.

Mitch Perry

Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served five years as political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. Mitch also was assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley and is a San Francisco native who has lived in Tampa since 2000. Mitch can be reached at [email protected]



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