St. Petersburg Council Member Jim Kennedy is a member and former chair of our board. Given recent editorials and articles in the Tampa Bay Times about forming a regional MPO, he felt compelled to respond. An abbreviated version of this letter ran in today’s paper.
The Tampa Bay Times continues to beat the drum for a regional Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) – a single regional planning organization that can set transportation priorities for Tampa Bay and advance a regional public transit solution. It might be a good idea or not, but rather than try to silence critics with legitimate questions and concerns as being parochial or unable to walk and chew gum at the same time, perhaps we should examine the real issues:
The three Tampa Bay area MPOs in Pasco, Pinellas and Hillsborough Counties already meet routinely through the Transportation Management Area Leadership Group – comprised of three officials from each MPO board – to set regional priorities. Each MPO then adopts the recommendations of this advisory body to tell state and federal agencies which projects to fund. Are business leaders more interested in advocating for a regional transportation decision-making body that’s to their liking or truly advocating for the priorities that have already been established by our regional voices?
Planners and most elected officials use valid data to make decisions, so we should gather some data before rushing to judgment on forming a regional MPO. The MPOs have advocated for – and FDOT has funded – a six-month research effort to explore best practices and lessons learned from other regions that would inform creation of a single transportation planning agency for the Tampa Bay area. Here are some issues and questions that need to be addressed before making a commitment to merging existing organizations:
- How would a regional MPO actually tap into more federal and state transportation dollars when FDOT’s work program is facing serious budget challenges and bringing back federal transit dollars requires a hard commitment of local funding for transit capital and operating costs? The Times has already documented the poor per capita funding of HART and PSTA, causing operating shortfalls that federal funds can’t address. Federal and state gas taxes have not been raised in decades, and some area local governments have been unwilling to raise authorized gas taxes to meet a growing transportation need. How exactly will this newfound money materialize?
- Transportation is really a means to an end for achieving desired economic, environmental, land use and community goals. How would separating a regional MPO from county-based land use and economic development planning ensure wise land use and transportation decisions, consistent with the principles of home rule? What carrots and sticks would a regional transportation planning agency have to make the most efficient and equitable use of public resources? Forward Pinellas, the Pinellas County MPO, is the result of merging countywide land use and transportation planning within one agency. Will that model work for a larger region?
- Are we really just rearranging the deck chairs on a woefully underfunded and behind schedule transportation system or are we creating a true leadership forum that can make the hard decisions for the best interests of the region? We should look to other regions and within ourselves to find the answer.
St. Petersburg City Council Member and Forward Pinellas Board Member