By Leonardo Dosoretz, Voice Committee Member
On Monday, July 28, 2014, Florida Governor Rick Scott took a ride in a driverless car on the Selmon Expressway as part of an ongoing trial for the new technology.[i] The event reflects the evolving nature of transportation and comes at an appropriate time as the Tampa Bay area once again tries to address public transportation reform and development.
We do not know what transportation will look like in the future—it could be similar to the system we currently have, new technology could revolutionize transportation entirely, or unforeseeable circumstances could force transportation systems to adapt. With this uncertainty in mind, it would be prudent for citizens of Hillsborough to watch what is going on in Pinellas, as the voters there start making decisions crucial to that county’s growth and future.
Pinellas will vote this November on whether to reduce property taxes and increase the sales tax by 1% to fund public transportation improvements through a program called Greenlight Pinellas. While Hillsborough will not vote on such a measure until 2016 at the earliest[ii], it is worthwhile to analyze the Greenlight plan and its implications.
One of the main thrusts of Greenlight is emphasizing the importance of multimodal transportation. Multimodal transportation can be described as the coexistence and interconnectedness between distinct means of transportation. This includes pedestrians, bicycles, automobiles, and rail systems. In other words, Greenlight would serve hubs of activity, such as downtown St. Petersburg, to be easily accessible by foot, by bicycle, by car, by bus, and eventually by rail, while people traveling to less dense areas of the county would also have more transportation options to reach their destinations.
Greenlight aims to improve and expand public transportation options over the next 10 years in a sequential and economically-logical order to provide comprehensive transportation coverage throughout Pinellas. Greenlight will initially focus on bus service expansion throughout Pinellas.[iii] If current trends continue and there is decreased demand for driving in urban centers[iv], then developing downtown St. Petersburg, Gateway, and other nodes of activity throughout the county to be more accessible and multimodal should make those areas more attractive for businesses and residents. As Tampa Bay continues to grow at a fast rate[v], Greenlight will keep people and commerce moving throughout Pinellas briskly. Expanded public transportation should also have identifiable financial benefits for homeowners in Pinellas. Greenlight lowers property taxes and studies have shown that “homes within walking distance of transit systems tend to outperform others in the region, while commuters save money when they don’t have to pay to own and maintain a car.”[vi] By revitalizing the transportation system, property values in Pinellas could increase and citizens will have the option to cut down on their transportation expenses if they choose.
If the two counties eventually do establish transportation systems, connecting them will be crucial to unlocking their full potential. For many people and especially visitors, Tampa Bay is one large metropolitan area and not two dichotomous regions. Any transportation developments in Hillsborough should connect to Pinellas and vice versa. For Tampa Bay to take full advantage of any developments, travelers should not get stranded going from one county to the other.
Having a comprehensive transportation system will also allow Pinellas to connect with other locations outside the county and throughout the state. Tampa International Airport (TIA) recently announced expansion plans[vii] and a transportation system that seamlessly connects Pinellas to the airport, which should allow the county to reap some of the expected benefits. Connectivity applies beyond just Tampa Bay though, as evidenced by the start of construction for All Aboard Florida—a rail system connecting Miami, West Palm Beach, and Orlando.[viii] An alternative to driving to Orlando and the Atlantic coast from Tampa Bay would be an attractive option and would also ease traffic between the two regions. Such developments would provide new opportunities, such as offering visitors a way to reach Pinellas’ outstanding beaches from TIA without renting a car, or combining a beach vacation in Tampa Bay with a trip to Orlando’s attractions, without the need to drive.
On a broad scale, improved public transportation can help leverage Tampa Bay’s strengths. The close proximity of vibrant coastal cities to beautiful beaches and other regional attractions would be well-served by smooth transportation between them. Nevertheless, Greenlight is an investment and all investments carry some degree of risk. The cost of the tax on the November ballot is significant and there is always the possibility that things will not go according to plan, or that circumstances may change. However, transforming Pinellas by integrating a more comprehensive public transportation system is an investment which, at the very least, will make the area more capable of adapting to trends and developments in transportation and city planning. The ceiling for the plan though, is much higher. A best case scenario for Greenlight envisions a vibrant and reinvigorated community where citizens have access throughout the county with multiple viable transportation options, businesses see new and exciting opportunities to thrive, and visitors are enticed by all the area has to offer. As November nears and Pinellas makes plans for the future, Hillsborough should consider how best to position itself for this wave of modern and crucial development.
[i] Crampton, Liz. “Governor Rick Scott Takes Spin in Automated Audi.” Tampa Bay Times. July 28, 2014.
[ii] Crampton, Liz. “Hillsborough Officials: Put 1-Cent Transportation Tax to Vote in 2016.” Tampa Bay Times. July 29, 2014.
[iii] The Greenlight Pinellas Plan, p. 3.
[iv] Schwartz, John. “Young Americans Lead Trend to Less Driving.” New York Times. May 13, 2013.
[v] The Florida Office of Economic and Demographic Research, Population and Demographic Reports. “Florida’s Population – 2014 Volume 1.”
[vi] Lerner, Matt. “New Ranking of Best U.S. Cities for Public Transit.” Walk Score. January, 28, 2014. <http://blog.walkscore.com/2014/01/new-ranking-of-best-u-s-cities-for-public-transit/>
[vii] Tampa International Airport, “Governor Announces Funding for TPA Expansion Project.” <http://www.tampaairport.com/about/media/articles/governor-announces-expansion-funding.asp>
[viii] Chardy, Alfonso. “Work Begins—Finally—on Miami-to-Orlando Fast Train.” Miami Herald. August 25, 2014.