A fast track to sensible transit plans

Published May 13, 2007

Local government is parochial by nature, and though thinking globally may make more sense, sometimes it takes a law to force the issue. That's why it was smart for the Legislature to create the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority. This new agency will make it easier for local governments to work together to meet the challenges of moving people more efficiently throughout the region.

The area's population of 4-million could double in the next 40 years. Having a transit system in place that moves people and goods efficiently is critical to growing the economy while preserving our quality of life. Communities cannot do that by looking at transportation county-by-county. The new authority will bring seven counties to the table: Citrus, Hernando, Pasco, Pinellas, Hillsborough, Manatee and Sarasota. The major cities also have a seat. This should give policymakers a better overall sense of three key issues: How to balance urban and rural transit needs, where to steer growth and what priorities to fund in the coming years.

The authority, at the outset, is little more than a shell with one immediate task. It must develop a regional master plan by July 2009 and adopt a process to ease disputes should a member-government oppose a transportation project. It will be clear as the process plays out whether the authority will rise to the job of creating a multi-modal network to include light rail and bus rapid-transit, or whether it merely becomes a tool to build toll roads and worsen sprawl.

While its impact on growth management is a bit uncertain, the present system is hardly better, and locally elected officials will control the governing board, which will make it accountable. Bringing these counties and cities together under one planning umbrella also could enable them to work closer on a range of other issues, from natural resource protection to economic development. But the primary intent is to create an efficient mass transit system to move people throughout the region. That should be the authority's focus.