During a recent County Commission meeting, a young college-aged student asked an important question regarding the proposed Pinellas Transportation Plan, a question that captures the essence of the challenge facing our community. The question was simply – “what do we want our future to be?” Our community’s ability to collectively answer that question – based on facts, instead of political rhetoric – will determine if Pinellas County and the Tampa Bay region will make significant progress toward a modern transportation system in the near future.
There is broad agreement that Pinellas County needs to improve our transportation system. As fuel prices rise and roads become more congested, that need becomes ever more apparent. An optimal transportation system must be multimodal. Simply building more roads is not the answer. Likewise, summarily dismissing the option of light rail – or preventing the community from considering the option, as some have urged, would be a shortsighted repeat of the Governor’s rejection of High Speed Rail (and thousands of jobs) before feasibility studies were completed. Those studies ultimately showed that the High Speed Rail project would have been profitable - partisan politics notwithstanding.
Beyond the hyperbole, hyper-partisan rhetoric, and organized attempts to prevent the public from voting on a transit referendum, remains the critical task of planning and building a modern transportation system to support our diverse community and economy. I agree that we need a thorough and well vetted discussion about the future of Pinellas County’s transportation infrastructure. In fact that conversation has been ongoing, and will continue with broad community input over the next year.
We have been making progress. PSTA ridership is at record levels. US19 continues to develop as a north/south expressway as overpasses are completed. East/West roadways including Keystone Road, Bryan Dairy and Ulmerton Road are being improved for greater capacity, efficiency and safety. I must note that those road projects don’t “pay for themselves”, and are completely taxpayer subsidized, a criticism often leveled at rail projects. Few would argue that these fixed position road projects aren’t worth the investment.
Over the coming months, the Pinellas community will have the opportunity to shape our future. The proposed Pinellas Transportation plan includes several key elements, including countywide bus service improvements, light rail connecting major activity centers, and the elimination of the PSTA property tax. This is not simply about a particular mode of transit, but it’s about job creation, smart growth management, regional connectivity, and our ability to compete with other counties and regions for jobs, tourism, and strategically planned development. That effort requires long term strategic thinking, with the focus on building a sustainable, efficient transportation system for the future. How we achieve that goal is ultimately a community decision, and I look forward to the conversation.