Writer: Max Crampton-Thomas
4 min read September 2019 — Whether it is Hillsborough, Pasco or Pinellas County, transportation issues seem to plague the entirety of this growing region. Mitigating these challenges requires innovative thinking and collaboration between the community, local government and both public and private organizations. Invest: Tampa Bay recently spoke with Beth Alden, executive director for the Hillsborough Metropolitan Planning Organization, and Whit Blanton, executive director of Forward Pinellas. These two organizations, whose primary focus is addressing the transportation and transit issues in the Tampa Bay region, discussed how they are gauging community needs in regards to these issues, facilitating better transit options and how they are turning dollars into solutions.
How do you gauge the community’s needs in regards to new transportation options?
Beth Alden: We have been engaging the public with an online survey, which is an interactive, gamified survey to ask folks about their priorities in regards to transportation. We received 5,200 responses, and it is amazing how many people are saying that they want a better rapid transit system. We have also discovered that they are very interested in reusing the freight rail tracks. That would require an agreement with CSX, which owns those tracks, but it’s a very underutilized asset. There’s no freight rail track between Downtown Tampa, the airport and the Westshore Business District, and it will take some extra steps to create that.
Whit Blanton: Our challenge in Pinellas County is that we are not growing like Pasco, Hillsborough, or Manatee County. We are expected to add about 90,000 people by the year 2045, which is a small fraction of what the other counties are expected to have. We have to plan and think differently. We have a situation here where the average new worker in Pinellas County is almost 50 years old, so we are not attracting young workers, except maybe in St. Petersburg, but most young people can’t afford to live there. Our strategy is really aimed at the future of our workforce, how do we draw talent and how do we retain this talent. We believe the solution is investing in housing and better mass transit services.
How are you facilitating better transit options?
Alden: In regards to transit, having some form of passenger rail system or rapid transit system would be one way we could do that. The important point with a rapid transit system is that we provide a way for it not to get stuck in traffic, so we need to provide some space for it to run and get out of traffic. We can do this with our bus system by providing special bypass lanes for buses where there is room on major roads. The walk and bicycle infrastructure is really important as well. People do not realize how many trips they make that are less than two miles long. If there are safe ways to walk or bicycle, then they do not necessarily have to be putting another car on the road to make that short trip. This also relates to our Vision Zero project, which is the vision of zero traffic deaths in Tampa Bay.
Blanton: ITS (Intelligent Transportation Systems) 2.0 is our plan for moving toward more intelligent transportation systems. Since the early 2000s, we’ve done a good job of implementing smart signals for moving traffic, responding to hot spots of congestion and facilitating traffic flow. ITS 2.0 is intended to reimagine what the next phase of that investment is going to look like, which will focus more on real-time information and also ensuring the safety of bicycling and walking. Our advanced traffic management system has been focused on moving cars through intersections and keeping the flow going, but the next phase will include recognition of pedestrians at crosswalks. We also have an integrated transit fare payment system, called Flamingo Fares, that has been under development for a couple of years. That should go live in the next year. It will be a one-fare payment that can be used all over the region, whether someone is in Hillsborough or Pinellas County.
What specific plans are being implemented to move transportation development forward?
Alden: We will start with the essentials: resurfacing, safety and smart traffic signal projects. Almost half (the new Hillsborough transportation tax) is for transit, starting with expanding the bus service so it runs on evenings, weekends and often enough that you do not have to spend an hour waiting for a transfer. This is an amazing opportunity to implement the changes we have been planning for years. There are many more exciting projects in the pipeline. We finally have the resources to make the changes that the community wants to see in Tampa Bay.
Blanton: The Gateway District is our economic engine in Pinellas County. It is where the St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport is located, and there are a significant number of manufacturing and office jobs in that area. The challenge is that it is a loose and segregated type of development that is in need of an update. The Gateway is in four different jurisdictions, so it can be hard to design a cohesive plan for that area. We asked all four local governments, Pinellas Park, St. Petersburg, Largo and Pinellas County, to contribute $100,000. Forward Pinellas then put in $100,000 and the Department of Transportation put in another $500,000. With all this funding, we were able to put together a million-dollar master plan that is about to be finished. It is a reimagining of how the Gateway will develop in the future and focus on sustainable development because a lot of the gateway is in a coastal, high hazard, flood-prone area where businesses and potential development are vulnerable. The plan addresses how we are looking at higher density development to support transit in that area because we need to get our workers between the counties.