Jennifer LaRocco, GrayRobinson, P.A.
From the County Commission Chambers to the streets and sidewalks of Tampa, Government and Transportation Day gave our class in-depth (and hands on) perspectives on both the obstacles and the opportunities facing Tampa Bay as our local governments grapple with one of the area’s most stubborn challenges – transportation. To round the day out, our friends from LT ’17 brought us goats…
The day began at the Chamber with presentations from Hillsborough County Commissioner Sandy Murman (Chair, District 1) and Tampa City Council Member Luis Viera (District 7). Commissioner Murman began by putting today’s transportation discussion into historical context; Hillsborough County has more than 50 transportation plans in the last 25 years. For current plans to have a chance, we will need to overcome the biggest challenges facing any plan, where to find funding and how to convince constituents to buy in. Commissioner Murman’s approach is to focus on phased implementation building on achievable goals, from expanding ridership on existing modes of transportation like HART to building feeder connections like a link between USF and downtown. Property tax revenues alone simply will not be enough to get Tampa Bay the transportation system it wants. For that, we will need business investment and taxpayer buy-in. Meeting those challenges is crucial because a functional transportation system is a key component to economic development for the region.
Council Member Viera focused on the role that local government plays in our lives, not only in transportation but in a host of challenges and opportunities. As the most accessible level of government, local governments can be more responsive to the individual needs of their communities. From funding local rec centers to bringing the Warrior Games to Tampa, he described ways that local governments can respond to what their constituents tell them is important. As he put it, “if you put ideas out, people will listen.”
Heading over to the Hillsborough County Center, we got a chance to see the funding problem for ourselves. In an informal class poll by the Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) on transportation goals, we promptly voted in favor of improvements carrying a $9 billion price tag – well in excess of our $500 million budget.
We also heard about another aspect of the transportation problem – safety. Florida leads the country in traffic deaths, with Hillsborough County often leading the state. We learned about Vision Zero, a multi-national road traffic safety project that aims to achieve a transportation system with no fatalities or serious injuries involving road traffic. Here in Hillsborough County, Vision Zero is focusing on low-cost, quick-to-implement projects developed as neighborhood-based solutions to tackle this problem. Next, we heard from WalkWise, which provides pedestrian safety education to citizens, and we all took the WalkWise pledge to be safe and to share what we learned with others. (This pledge would soon be tested when we got to the goats, but we didn’t know that just yet…)
Next up was lunch at the University Club, where Dr. Susan MacManus of USF spoke to us about how local government works and how we interact with it. Two out of three people say government is “not functional”, and more than 70% say it is “the worst ever.” But while respondents in these polls were likely thinking about dysfunction at the federal level when they gave those answers, it is local governments that provide the most daily services to citizens. Despite that daily presence, local government receives the least focus in civics education, which can result in citizens not knowing how to interact with the level of government that impacts them the most. Education is important for another reason, Florida is now more representative of overall U.S. demographics than any other state. Contrary to the state’s snowbird and retiree reputation, millennials and Gen X’ers combined now make up more than half of all registered voters, and 27% of those voters are registered as NPA or independent. All of this gives Floridians, particularly along the Tampa-Orlando corridor, considerable political clout and makes it that much more important that Tampa voters and taxpayers understand exactly how government works and how projects get funded.
After lunch, we heard from our transportation panel, which included representatives from HART, the Hillsborough County MPO, Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority (TBARTA) and FDOT. Almost all of the panelists pointed once again to funding as one of the main challenges facing any transportation plan. Other common themes included the need for regional solutions and cooperation, a focus on transit being about moving people (not necessarily cars) and implementation of new technologies. The panel also called on businesses, which are largely impacted by transportation problems, to be louder voices in the transportation debate and to foster greater education within the business community regarding available solutions. The panelists noted that the discussion about transportation is not a “postcard argument”, it isn’t simple, and there is no single fix. TampaBayNext.com is a great resource to find out more about the current plans and to find ways to get educated and get involved.
And then came the goats. From the hallowed heights of the University Club, we hit the streets in The Amazing Race – Tampa Edition. Challenged to visit pit stops, including Ybor City, Harbour Island and UT (who knew there were two cannons?!), each team had to use at least seven different modes of transportation during the race. We walked, biked, taxied, Uber’ed, and hopped on buses, trolleys, water taxis and Tampa’s own Downtowner enjoying the fun and feeling the frustration that the different modes had to offer. While we couldn’t all win, we did all gain an appreciation for new and different ways of getting around our own City of Tampa. That, and we got to hug goats. All in a day’s work for LT ’18!