Leadership Tampa’s Transportation Day: The Wheels on the Bus

Jill Witecki, Tampa Theatre

By plane, by train, by boat and bus, millions of Tampa residents and visitors are transporting themselves efficiently around the Bay area every day. At least, that’s the vision shared by those who spoke to our class on the recent Transportation Day.

As with many visitors to our fair city, our port of entry to Transportation Day was Tampa International Airport, one of the top-rated airports in the nation among its 16 million+ passengers. And after a brief welcome, we were on our way to the newly rebranded Port Tampa Bay, which expects to host more than a million cruise passengers this year.

“Joe [Lopano, CEO of TIA] and I are working together from plane to port,” said Port president Paul Anderson, to present a consistent message “of why to come to Tampa Bay, and why to come back.”

As Anderson listed Port Tampa Bay’s accolades – from shipping container crane improvements to attracting AMPORTS to open a dedicated auto imports terminal later this year, to adding a sixth home-ported cruise ship to Channelside’s landscape – his message was clear: “Every great American city grew up around its port,” he said. “It’s Tampa Bay that makes us Tampa.”

But the very sparkling waters that define our city also provides its biggest challenge, forcing commuters to choose between clogged bridges and equally congested highways to circumnavigate the bay. But what if there was an alternative, wondered panel presenter Ed Turanchik? What if that bay could be turned from impasse to asset with the addition of a high-speed ferry?

With enthusiasm that was almost more church pulpit than civic planner, Turanchik painted a smart portrait of a South Shore waterfront park with rush-hour service to and from MacDill Air Force Base – an easy six-mile nautical trip that would reduce the number of cars on the road by as many as 1,200 and ease drawn out waits at the base’s main gate. And the best part (punctuated by a slide that simply said “Wow”) is the rather workable budget attached to the public-private partnership.

“Here’s 25 million: go find another project that does more, better, faster,” Turanchik urged. “If you can, go do it. If not, do this.”

But even as panelist and FDOT director Debbie Hunt explained that regional transportation coordination is vital – that the “only way to achieve big projects” is to find one voice, a unified plan and a single set of priorities – fellow presenter Jeff Seward, the CFO of the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority, presented HART’s plan for the MetroRapid East-West to connect the Westshore Business District to the airport, and Hillsborough County MPO Executive Director Ray Chiaramonte lamented that Tampa is the only major city in the nation without a rail transit system, even the bones of 100+ miles of underutilized freight lines already exist.

“It’s almost like we already have the perfect system in place,” Chiaramonte said. “We just need to figure out how to use it.”

Indeed, as well-formed and well-presented as all three ideas were, the “perfect system” seems both irresistibly close and impossibly distant as we as a community continue to figure out “how to use it,” be it resources, momentum or the tide of public opinion.

The next stop of the day promised to introduce us to the power of alternative fuels at the Trillium CNG station, but it was difficult to hear the finer points over the chattering of classmates’ teeth. Weather ruled, and the visit was cut short as the class hastily retreated to the warm buses, which took us back to TIA for a fascinating tour of the four miles of machines that sort, scan (and occasionally tear the handles off of) 15,000 pieces of luggage each day.

The day ended on an optimistic note – and I don’t mean the debrief wine samples at First Flight – with a glimpse of the TIA’s future as VP of Facilities Al Illustrato showed us the airport’s multi-phase Master Plan.

Tampa is no stranger to transportation innovation. The nation’s first commercial flight connected the same two city centers that Ed Turanchik eventually hopes to link by ferry. TIA installed a one-of-a-kind people-mover 42 years ago that remains the city’s most successful light-rail system. Transportation Day proved that while we may still have miles to go in creating the public transit system this region deserves, the spirit of innovation is still driving (and boating and busing) Tampa Bay’s interest in solving its transportation issues.

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