A reversal of momentum can take one’s breath away. Throughout 2010, the Tampa Bay region seemed poised to join Charlotte, Dallas, Denver, Salt Lake City, Seattle, and other southern and western metropolitan regions transforming themselves through light rail and transit-system upgrades.

In the Tampa Bay region, local leaders started by tackling the fragmentation of a region made up of seven counties in a state where metropolitan planning and transit service are typically provided at the county level. They pushed state legislation creating the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority (TBARTA) in 2007. Two years later, TBARTA released its first master plan, calling for knitting the region together by 2035 with 116 miles (187 km) of rail and bus rapid transit lines, 226 miles (364 km) of express bus service, and 170 miles (274 km) of special lanes for buses, carpool vehicles, and toll-paying vehicles. Adding to the excitement, the Obama administration awarded federal funds for high-speed rail connecting Orlando with downtown Tampa. Political support grew in Tampa’s Hillsborough County to finance TBARTA’s plans, and county commissioners voted to hold a referendum on a penny sales tax increase dedicated to transportation.

But election day in November 2010 brought a “no” from Hillsborough County on the sales tax. That same day, Florida voters chose a new Republican governor, Rick Scott, who would soon pull the plug on high-speed rail, refusing billions of dollars in federal funds. His first budget slashed state funding for TBARTA by over $900,000.

To use a football metaphor, it was as if the home team had been driving down the field with the go-ahead score in reach. On first and goal the quarterback gets sacked; on second down, he throws an interception. Monday-morning quarterbacks came up with this analysis: the transit plans were not far enough along for people to rally around them, and the recession was still too deep. Some people pointed fingers at tea party politics.

But building the future of regional transit around Tampa Bay is not a game. It is not about winning or losing; the clock does not run out. Leaders in the area, including in the business community, understand that building an economically competitive region boosted by a robust transit system is a long-term project. Short-term setbacks are just that: short term. There will always be something to do next—and then next—and next after that.

Developing leadership that can stay the course on regional transit requires an institution that can think and act regionally, and that is where the Tampa Bay Partnership (TBP) comes in. A nonprofit organization with financial support from 175 private and public organizations, the TBP has as its mission advancing the economic development of the region by marketing Tampa Bay nationally and internationally, conducting research, and coordinating business and government efforts. Major TBP investors include the region’s hospitals, professional sports teams, media companies, business services organizations, universities, and county economic development councils.

The Tampa Bay Partnership supported regional transit from the start—from the moment members realized that Charlotte and other “new transit metros” were successfully wooing companies and jobs with the promise of a region connected by high-quality transit service. “Back in 2009, then–Charlotte Mayor [Pat] McCrory told a Tampa Bay crowd he uses Charlotte’s transit investments to recruit companies away from Tampa Bay,” recounts Stuart Rogel, TBP president and CEO. “This was a wakeup call for Tampa Bay. We knew companies were using transportation as a factor in their relocation decisions, but the reality that a competitor region was leveraging transit—successfully—indicated a real problem. Transit investments are not just for a community’s quality of life, but for real economic health.”

An empty lot in Tampa waits in
vain for the dream of a high-speed
rail station to come true.

As Americans focus on transportation choices, new data and rankings shine light on the performance of entire transportation systems. When it comes to being able to reach jobs via transit, the Tampa–St. Petersburg–Clearwater area ranks 77th among the 100 largest U.S. metropolitan areas, according to Missed Opportunity: Transit and Jobs in Metropolitan America, a recent analysis by the Brookings Institution. The region also ranks poorly in pedestrian safety, compounding the challenge of expanding transit service and meeting livability objectives.

Improving transportation is also critical to the partnership’s regional business plan and the accompanying strategic plan for 2012–2014. “Modern transit will reduce traffic congestion, link together residential and business centers, and encourage higher-density, mixed-use development of residential, office, cultural, and entertainment areas that young professionals want and expect,” says Gary Sasso, chair of the TBP’s transportation task force and CEO of the Carlton Fields law firm. “Employers want employees and customers from all over the region to have ease of access to their places of business, and they want to know they are operating in a region that is investing in progress, quality of life, and the infrastructure needed to support growth.”

The 2010 election and its aftermath provided the Tampa Bay Partnership with an opportunity to step back and reassess its approach to advocating for regional transit.

Katie Franco, the TBP’s vice president for public policy and advocacy, shared the lessons learned and the partnership’s resulting five-point strategy:

  • Passionate leadership. The TBP is uniquely positioned to keep the excitement flowing and commitment level high in the business community.
  • Community education. Dialogue needs to expand beyond business leaders and political leaders; moving forward also requires better outreach to the public.
  • Structures for regionalism. Confronting fragmentation and supporting coordination across the seven-county region will continue to be important.
  • Innovative funding. Depending solely on raising taxes is not a winning strategy; public/private partnerships and new approaches to tolls need to be considered, too.
  • Independent analysis of projects. Being a cheerleader for regional transit in the abstract is not enough; the region needs an independent voice that can also evaluate and prioritize specific projects.

The stakes remain high, a point driven home in March when Florida East Coast Industries announced its All Aboard Florida initiative to provide new passenger rail service between Orlando and Miami by 2014. With top speeds of 110 miles per hour (177 kmph), the new rail service would put Atlantic beaches within easy reach of tourist magnet Orlando, placing the Tampa Bay region at risk of being left behind as cities on Florida’s east coast exploit the new connectivity the service would provide.

Despite setbacks to rail plans, a
ULI Advisory Services panel
recommended near-term steps
to make downtown Tampa
transit ready.

While the TBP works at the regional level and with the business community, local government initiatives are also advancing. Although Hillsborough County has abandoned, for now, its study of light rail, Pinellas County, home of St. Petersburg, is moving forward. The county and TBARTA released an alternatives analysis in January that recommends creating a nearly 24-mile (39-km) light-rail connection between Clearwater and St. Petersburg.

Also over the past year, Pasco County adopted an innovative “mobility fee,” replacing its flat $10,000 transportation impact fee levied on each new single-family home. The mobility fee, a type of impact fee, provides incentives for development in planned growth areas that can be served by transit, as well as disincentives for rural sprawl. Moreover, revenues are not designated solely for road construction, but also can be used to fund buses, park-and-ride lots, sidewalks, and bicycle infrastructure.

In Tampa, a ULI advisory services panel, originally invited to examine development connected to the hoped-for high-speed rail station, found plenty of work that can be done in the near term to make downtown Tampa and adjacent neighborhoods transit ready. Although light rail may be on the back burner in Hillsborough County, buses are not. Bus ridership in Tampa and the rest of the county rose nearly 12 percent in 2011, continuing a string of annual increases. Meanwhile, the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority and the Hillsborough County Expressway Authority are partnering with the Federal Highway Administration to study bus toll lanes, an innovation that would expand toll roads and bus lanes, collecting revenue through tolls and fares.

On the one-year anniversary of the failed referendum in Hillsborough County, the Tampa Bay Times wrote in an editorial, “Last year’s vote was a setback, but it cannot be the final word.” And it hasn’t been. The Tampa Bay area still seems positioned to eventually join Denver, Salt Lake City, and Seattle—regions that also found their way forward after initial “no” votes on plans for regional transit.

This article is part of the continuing Urban Land series Business on Board, which investigates the business community’s role in advancing transit. To be added to the infrastructure mailing list, e-mail [email protected].

To read other articles in this series, see: 

Seattle and Suburbs Find Innovative Compromise to Save Transit
Utah Business Embrace Light Rail
NoMa: The Neighborhood That Transit Built
Healthline Drives Growth in Cleveland