Tampa Bay’s transportation woes have vexed residents and businesses for years. Will a new source of funds — taxes — move the issue toward a solution?
To paraphrase the theme song from "Smokey and the Bandit," Tyler Hudson and Christina Barker had a long way to go and a short time to get there, but in the end, they did what many said couldn’t be done.
Their accomplished mission: get a majority of Hillsborough County voters to approve a 1-cent sales tax increase to fund transportation improvements over the next three decades. Dubbed All For Transportation, the citizen-led initiative was a success, not only getting a funding referendum on the ballot, but winning it comfortably, with 57.3% of the vote.
“A lot of people told us we were going to lose, but we were unafraid of losing,” says Hudson, 33, a lawyer with Gardner Brewer Martinez-Monfort who serves as chairman of All For Transportation. “We came into a situation where this hadn’t worked before, and the situation with transportation had only deteriorated, so we said, ‘What’s the worst that could happen? The status quo?’”
It’s true. Tampa Bay’s transportation situation, say several area leader, could not get much worse. Which is why AFT’s triumph, while notable, is just the beginning of what will be a true test of vision and leadership. That's because while the funds — between $13 billion and $16 billion, depending on population growth — will help shape a new transportation model for the Tampa Bay region for generations, doubts linger, given past failed initiatives and general community and government inertia.
Hudson and Barker’s experience, meanwhile, imparts a valuable business lesson — namely, don't hesitate when you see an opening. The young leaders say they grew tired of waiting for elected officials to tackle transportation funding in a serious, strategic, long-term fashion.
“Don’t ask for permission,” says Hudson. “If you want to change something, go out and do it. At first, we were like, ‘Oh, let’s wait until 2020.’ No, that [way of thinking] got us into the situation we’re in. Impatience can be a virtue.”
The Tampa Bay area does many things well, but transportation is not one of them. According to the Tampa Bay Partnership’s latest Regional Competitiveness Report, an annual publication that compares the region to 19 similar metro areas, Tampa Bay ranks last in transit ridership per capita and transit vehicle revenue miles per capita. In other words, we love our cars. Public transit? Not so much.
“The new challenge is to make sure that the work that gets done in Hillsborough is not done in isolation, but that it’s done in recognition that we are all part of something larger — a larger network.” Rick Homans, Tampa Bay Partnership
Continued over-reliance on the automobile also has public safety consequences. Tampa Bay ranks No. 19 out of 20 in number of pedestrian and cyclist fatalities per 100,000 residents, RCR says. So for every 100,000 people, about four, the report found, will be struck and killed by a car while they are walking or bicycling. Only Orlando ranks behind Tampa Bay in that category.
Solutions, to some extent, are at the ready. Hillsborough County, for example, has a $9 billion backlog of unfunded transportation projects, according to AFT officials. But amid an economic and population boom that has seen the region’s tax base grow significantly, why have transportation needs been neglected?
“Political will,” says Barker, 33, who works for Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik's family office as vice president of policy and community affairs. “The will to go out and get funding.”
Hudson adds, “The absence of funding is not an accident. That was an intentional choice — to not fund transportation. But the voters have stepped in and changed that.”
For starters, more than 77,000 residents signed a petition that helped land the AFT sales-tax initiative on the ballot. Hudson and Barker say the group’s timing and easy-to-understand messaging was integral — another key business lesson.
“It represented a big shift from previous efforts driven by transit agencies with big maps and dots and lines,” says Barker. “We were like, ‘No, we just want safer streets; we want transportation options.’ We tapped into a lot of frustration — a lot of folks felt the same way.”
Hudson believes the group’s pitch to voters came along at the perfect time. “We started very late, and a lot of people thought that was going to be a problem for us,” he says. “But honestly, I think that might’ve been an advantage, because we didn’t have two years to group-think this idea into oblivion.”
The business community, too, aided the effort. It supported AFT’s tax increase proposal “in an unprecedented way,” says Rick Homans, president and CEO of the Tampa Bay Partnership.
Vinik, for example, contributed $350,000 toward the effort. And the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce’s board of directors voted unanimously to endorse AFT’s amendment.
“We got a lot of support among conservatives,” Hudson explains, “because the problems had gotten so bad that they saw this as an investment and not a tax. The biggest advantage we had was rampant and pervasive frustration with the state of our transportation system. The status quo was a good opponent for us to run against.”
AFT consulted with the Tampa Bay Partnership before finalizing the language of its ballot initiative. Homans says he encouraged the group to go big and push for a 1 percentage point sales tax hike instead of a half percentage point increase. Polling, he says, forecasted a strong turnout of pro-transit voters that would carry the measure to victory, and the lack of organized opposition — like the No Tax for Tracks group that defeated a light-rail proposal for Pinellas County in 2014 — provided even more reason to believe.
The amendment also did well because of its call for a citizen-led oversight committee that would ensure officials appropriately spend funds raised by the tax increase. Of the billions of dollars to be generated over the 30-year lifetime of the tax, 54% is slated for investments in roads and safety, while 45% will be allocated to expanding transit options (1% is reserved for expenses related to oversight).
“The oversight committee isn’t getting into the weeds of picking projects,” Hudson says. “That’s the role of the County Commission, City Council and HART board.”
Hillsborough Area Rapid Transit, or HART, is responsible for the bus system in Tampa and Hillsborough County.
"The voters," Homans says, "knew exactly what they were voting for.”
THE BUSINESS CASE
The Tampa Bay area’s transportation puzzle has been particularly tough to solve because of the lack of a regional approach.
As opposed to a “doughnut hole” metro area like Atlanta or Indianapolis that has a single city center surrounded by a ring of suburbs connected by numerous primary and secondary arterial routes, the area’s geography and population distribution present a web of frustrating complexities for commuters and companies that do business on both sides of the bay.
“When a decision is being made in Hillsborough, it affects me just as much as a decision made in Pinellas,” says Barry Shevlin, CEO of tech firm Vology, headquartered in Pinellas County, near the St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport. “It’s pretty clear to me that the region needs to be working together to solve some of these problems.”
Shevlin says at least half his employees live across the bay, in Tampa and other communities in Hillsborough County, and “reverse-commute” to work every day — that is, they travel against the traditional rush-hour flow of traffic on the region’s bay-spanning bridges.
“Get an umbrella organization to bring all of the players to the table,” Shevlin says. “Get people to look at it as a [regional] problem. I mean, HART says, ‘Our job is to provide bus service inside Hillsborough County. Our job is not to cross county lines.’ It’s crazy. A regional body could help prioritize routes that would make sense, that would cross county lines.”
In addition to lost productivity due to people and goods being stuck in traffic, congestion also makes it difficult for employers like Shevlin to recruit qualified workers who live on the other side of Tampa Bay. “Your commute time is definitely going to be a consideration of where you choose to work,” he says.
Shevlin's hopes could come to fruition.
The Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority has moved forward with a regional transit feasibility plan that calls for the creation of a $455 million, 41-mile bus rapid transit system that would connect Wesley Chapel in the north to downtown St. Petersburg in the south.
Buses would travel in mixed traffic through Wesley Chapel and New Tampa to the University of South Florida’s Tampa campus. They would then transition into a dedicated, bus-only lane to the Howard Frankland Bridge. There the vehicles would travel in an express lane before again merging into a bus-only lane in the Gateway area of Pinellas County and continuing to downtown St. Petersburg.
The plan calls for 17 general stations to be built along the route, plus six intermodal stations — Wesley Chapel, USF Tampa, downtown Tampa, the Westshore business district, the Gateway area of Pinellas County and downtown St. Pete — that would offer additional connection. Ideally, says Homans, it would also have dedicated spaces for ride-share and bike-share services.
“You can hop off of one and hop on another and be connected with maximum efficiency and productivity, and each system can feed into one another,” Homans says. “But if we don't pay close attention to this and drive integration, we’ll end up with one station over here for Brightline, another over here for the regional BRT, one down here for the streetcar and another one for HART.”
While he disagrees with some details of the TBARTA plan, saying the entire 41-mile route should consist of dedicated bus-only lanes and that there should be nine or 10 general stations as opposed to 17, Homans says he’s glad to see the plan move from a mere draft to a formal project development phase.
“Now the real work gets done to define the project,” he says. “But we want to make sure we keep our aspirations very high as it moves forward.” Because of AFT’s win, he adds, “The new challenge is to make sure that the work that gets done in Hillsborough is not done in isolation, but that it’s done in recognition that we are all part of something larger — a larger network.”
The Tampa Bay region’s coalescing support for a new transportation paradigm has not gone unnoticed by the state. For one, the Florida Department of Transportation allocated $9.5 million for the St. Pete Central Avenue BRT route, which carries a cost of $41.35 million and would be operated by the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority. FDOT has also committed $1 million to a design fund for the system, being viewed as a proof of concept, of sorts, for BRT throughout the region.
Hudson cites that win as an example of why the sales tax increase has already created value for residents before a single penny has been spent. “Not having a local funding source [for transportation] meant that we shut the door to state matching funds, and we shut the door in some cases to federal matching funds,” he says. “By having this local funding source in place, we’re now going to be able to get some of the tax money that we send to Tallahassee and Washington, D.C., back into Hillsborough County."