The recent vote to support funding for the Tampa Bay Express (TBX) in the Hillsborough County MPO’s Transportation Improvement Program illustrates the difficult choices we face to improve transportation in the Tampa Bay region. The Florida Department of Transportation’s plan to construct variable priced toll lanes on Interstate 275, I-4 and I-75 has sparked much public debate over the past year about the proper ways to invest in our region’s transportation network for future economic value and quality of life.
FDOT asserts that TBX accelerates construction funding for the downtown and airport interchanges, provides an envelop for future regional transit service, and will reduce peak period congestion and improve travel time reliability between regional destinations, such as the Pinellas Gateway district, the University of South Florida, Tampa’s Westshore, downtown Tampa and the Gulf beaches. Managed express lanes exist with regional express bus service in Miami and Broward County, and are under construction for I-4 through metro Orlando.
Despite that perspective, TBX is a tough decision for many. The opposition speakers against the project weren’t merely passionate; they were well-informed and coherent in their arguments about what they see is a need for a different approach to transportation and economic development that favors reinvestment in recovering neighborhoods, expanding quality transit and other options for accessibility. There is a real impact to people, families and businesses with any type of transportation project. Some impacts and benefits are direct, such as buying homes, churches and businesses in the project path, or travelers having the option of taking a faster, less congested route. Other impacts play out indirectly or over a longer time, such as changes in market economics, costs of development or attractiveness of a neighborhood or region to the next generation of employers, workers and residents.
A Resolution of Support
Forward Pinellas, in its role as the Pinellas County MPO, voted to support TBX from a regional transportation and connectivity perspective. For instance, employers in the Pinellas Gateway area, Pinellas Park, Largo and St. Petersburg recruit workers from a four county travel shed. The Gulf beaches, which contribute $9 billion in economic value to the region, depend on regional access, as do the manufacturers, port facilities, cultural venues and sporting events that help to define the Tampa Bay region’s identity. We’re one region and the barriers to connectivity resulting from perpetual congestion hinder regional growth and vitality.
However, the Board conditioned its support for TBX on the need to expand regional transportation choices, particularly public transportation strategies that better link our downtowns, tourism destinations and employment areas. Forward Pinellas leaders recognized a large and growing imbalance in transportation funding that favors highways, and the potential inequity fostered through a managed lanes toll pricing strategy. It is ironic that 102 years after the nation’s first inter-city airline service began operating between Tampa and St. Petersburg there is not even bus service that connects the region’s two prominent downtown destinations. Perhaps soon a ferry will do the job.
Elections Have Consequences
The reality is that elections and public decisions have consequences. We live in an era when politicians of all persuasions are extremely cautious or outright hostile to the idea of raising new revenue for infrastructure, no matter how well-documented the need. On both sides of Tampa Bay and throughout Florida, voters have generally shown indifference or strong opposition to tax proposals for roads, transit and the like. The nation’s last gas tax increase was in 1993. Florida’s choice to expand the use of tolls to generate revenue for needed interstate expansion and maintenance is a policy decision made in a highly competitive funding environment when few other funding options are viable.
Until we are able to devise a clear vision and support complementary actions for transportation in the Tampa Bay area, we are going to continue having these difficult and challenging debates about growth and transportation. This is a dynamic region undergoing generational, social, physical and economic changes. The investments we need to make to handle those changes cost far more than we expect to have in available revenue. Just in Pinellas, we have a roadway funding shortfall of $1.2 billion by 2040, no defined funding to expand transit or replace aging buses, and lack sufficient funds to complete the Pinellas Trail loop or make our surface streets substantially safer for bicyclists and pedestrians.
So we have to prioritize what’s important to us. We have to decide what kind of economy we want in Tampa Bay, what kind of growth future we want, how our neighborhoods of all types can flourish, and how transportation can best serve those interests. Meeting those needs means setting funding priorities. It may also mean shifting more responsibility to the private sector, to the users of our transportation infrastructure, or to future generations at a potentially much higher cost.
In September, Forward Pinellas will formally transmit its project priorities for 2020-21 to FDOT for state and federal transportation funds, an essential function of a metropolitan planning organization. In parallel, we are beginning a process of setting performance measures and targets for what we expect our transportation system to achieve. Those two activities will go hand in hand in the future, serving to shape how we move and how we function as a cohesive community and region.
There’s simply never going to be enough money for all the projects people want or believe we need. Here are six key issues that will influence our decisions about transportation funding priorities in the next several years:
- Safety. Despite a downward trend in traffic crashes and fatalities, 2015 experienced an upswing in deaths, primarily due to an improving economy and lower gas prices. Bicyclist, pedestrian and motorcycle traffic deaths far outpaced the increase in automobile fatalities. Making our roads safer for all users – the Complete Streets approach – takes money to design better facilities and educate people.
- Infrastructure maintenance. FDOT has a preservation-first approach to funding when it comes to its highway network, and Florida generally does a good job maintaining its roads and bridges. Local governments face a very different challenge. The recession and competing fiscal demands have deferred needed maintenance and the bill for reconstruction, resurfacing and rehabilitation of our roadways and bridges, replacing buses and upgrading stormwater/drainage systems is coming due.
- Regional highway connectivity. The missing segments of Gandy Boulevard, 126th Avenue, and the US 19 interchanges at Curlew Road and Tampa Road illustrate the critical gaps in network connectivity that come with a very high price tag.
- Public transportation. Hillsborough Area Regional Transit (HART) is about to launch the Tampa Bay Premium Transit Feasibility Study, funded by FDOT to help Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas decide on a regional transit investment strategy. Meanwhile, pressure is on the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA) to buy more expensive electric buses to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. We have aging bus fleets, and most of our commercial corridors lack frequent bus service. The Forward Pinellas and PSTA boards will meet July 29th in a workshop format to discuss including transit projects in the MPO’s annual priority projects list.
- Technology. The market is responding to rapid advancements in data and technology to improve travel choices, which can lower costs and provide on-demand services to users throughout our region. But there are important considerations that entail investment in communications and adaptive technologies that will have an impact on budgets.
- Downtown redevelopment and community accessibility. Downtowns across our region, throughout Florida, and elsewhere in the country are thriving. Their continued revitalization depends equally on access, not just high-speed mobility. Transportation strategies must fit within a tightly built context, meaning we need to get more out of the relatively small footprint of construction projects and enable better connectivity through private on-demand ride-hailing services and other options.
The success of other regions, from places as distinct as Charlotte, Portland, Denver or Salt Lake City, is based on foundational, agreed-upon regional growth strategies like the Mile High Compact or Envision Utah. As we take the next steps forward for our economic and transportation future in the Tampa Bay region, what actions do we need to undertake to come together and make similar commitments here?