Legislators approve area transit authority

Published May 3, 2007

TALLAHASSEE - State lawmakers on Wednesday approved what could soon become the most powerful transportation agency in the bay area.

With no discussion or debate, House members unanimously created the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority, a 16-member board charged with planning and building a network of toll roads, rail lines and express buses to get people around seven counties.

As the bill heads to the governor's desk for signature, all that's left is getting the money to do it. Legislators have yet to vote on a budget that includes a $1-million line item for the agency's startup.

"It's like a kid leaving home, " said Rep. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, who has shepherded the bill for more than a year. "My hands are off it now."

The authority will be made up of representatives from Citrus, Hernando, Hillsborough, Manatee, Pasco, Pinellas and Sarasota counties, including county commissioners, big-city mayors, business executives and gubernatorial appointees, according to the legislation.

The authority is required to meet within 60 days after the governor approves it. It will have power to override local zoning rules, take property by eminent domain and partner with private companies to develop residential and retail clusters around rail stations.

"This is just the first step, " said Joe Smith, of the Tampa Bay Partnership, a regional business group that has made numerous trips to Tallahassee in recent months to help ensure the bill's passage.

After appointing an executive director, the authority has two years to draw a regional master transportation plan. The authority, however, will not take over the work of other transportation agencies.

Among the many projects supporters have said the authority might tackle is a 70-mile toll road through north Manatee, east Hillsborough, south Pasco and north Pinellas counties.

But Wednesday Galvano said he'd like to see rails become the board's initial focus.

"A home run would be to see them start pulling these plans together and having public hearings and start moving toward a real multimodal system, " he said.