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New Bus, Rail Proposals Receive Wide Support At Transit Forum

Roberto Roldan
WUSF Public Media
Real estate adviser Marilee Utter told the crowd at the Tampa Bay Trasit Forum on Friday that mass transit stops can become sites for new development districts.

The overriding message at the Tampa Bay Transit Forum on Friday was that it's finally time for action on mass transportation.

Politicians, activists and transportation officials came together to discuss the future of mass transit in the region at Tampa International Airport. Several key Republican and Democratic politicians are linning up behind the plan for a 41 mile bus rapid transit route from Wesley Chapel to St. Petersburg. The stretch from St. Petersburg to the University of South Florida Tampa will use a dedicated lane, and the entire route would have more frequent and updated busses.

Sandy Murman, the Republican chair of the Hillsborough County Comission, said she wants taxpayers to see tangible improvements to transportation within the next decade.

"There are no more words that can say 'Lets just do it,'" she said.  " I'm not saying we should stop the conversations because you have to keep the conversations going, but we have a fabulous plan."

Murman also said she'd like to see voters decide on a proposed referendum that would increase the sales tax in the county from seven to eight cents for public transit and roadway improvements. She voted against a proposal in 2014 to put a half-cent sales tax increase for transportation on the ballot.

A proposal for a private company to build a high speed rail link between Tampa and Orlando also received bipartisan support at the forum. Earlier this year, Brightline submitted plans to the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) to build a rail system in the median of Interstate 4.

Ken Welch, the Democratic chair of the Pinellas Board of County Comissioners, called on the public to embrace a project that would connect the two largest metro areas in Central Florida.

"The connected Tampa Bay-Orlando mega-region has a population exceeding 6 million and will be an economic and political powerhouse when it is connected with congestion-proof, high-speed transit," Welch said.

The forum also served as a venue for transportation officials to highlight ongoing projects. David Gwynn, the regional FDOT secretary, said he was excited about a circular bus service that will connect the University of South Florida area and downtown Tampa starting next year, as well as a grant that will make the Tampa streetcar system free for the next three years.

While many transportation advocates spoke on how a new mass transit system to alleviate congestion in the region, real estate adviser Marilee Utter also gave a presentation on how it could also bring new business and residential developments.

Utter told the crowd that a stop on a bus or train line can attract what's called transit oriented development. That's areas outside of downtown with plazas, multi-use buildings and easy access to public transportation. She used a district she helped build in Englewood, Colorado as an example.

"It is not a building, it's a district," she said. "Ideally it's a multi-block experience so it's got enough interest to attract you, and it's walkable, it's bikeable."

Building in these districts are generally funded at least in part by reinvesting money that comes from increased property values near the transit stops.

Utter warned that when mass transit stops are chosen, they can quickly attract developers. For that reason, local officials need to be ready to work hand-in-hand with the private sector to plan the right kinds of districts.

Transit-oriented developments can be created around whatever mode of mass transit officials settle on, and Utter said the biggest challenge for the Tampa Bay region will be getting out of the planning stage.

"Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good," she said. "There is not yet a transit system that is perfect. I'm rooting for you guys to come to some conclusion and get underway with whatever you come up with."

Utter said some up and coming areas of Tampa are already primed for this type of building. She pointed to the Armature Works just north of downtown Tampa as the type of development a new mass transit system could attract.

Roberto Roldan is a senior at the University of South Florida pursuing a degree in mass communications and a minor in international studies.
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