On a Saturday afternoon a couple of weeks ago in north Brandon, traffic was backed up about a half-mile on the two-lane road outside my subdivision. Strange. Normally you would see two or three cars, tops, on the same stretch of asphalt. I edged into the line of cars and crawled to a stop sign, waiting to turn right. Same thing. It looked like Atlanta at 5 p.m., with nothing but brake lights and stopped cars ahead. The story was the same on several of the main arteries there in suburbia, including the Selmon expressway.
Gridlock. A wreck that closed Interstate 75 for several hours caused all this. Traffic was diverted off the interstate and through the streets of Brandon, and when that happened forward motion basically shut down. “All of that because of one wreck. I heard lots of complaints about that,” Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe said. v v It was also an opening to talk about Tampa’s transit problems, one of Sharpe’s favorite subjects. “We can’t rely on just one mode of transportation,” he said. “Other cities aren’t waiting to address this. We’ll still be sitting in gridlock while other cities pass us by.” It’s a problem common throughout the county, but we attack it by putting up orange barrels that choke traffic even more while we take years to build new roads or widen existing ones. Earlier this week, Sharpe said he favors expanding the bus system quickly because that can be done with minimal resistance. Don’t think he has abandoned light rail, though. v v “People are out there trying to delay any final transportation plan because they want to wait until we have a complete package before they do anything. I think that’s a mistake,” Sharpe said. “I’m taking this head-on. What kind of community do we want to be? Every other place has figured it out, except Tampa.” We’ll pause here while our tea party friends send out an emergency call to arms. If you have an hour or two to spare, sneak up behind a tea party member and whisper, “light rail.” Just be prepared to listen — you won’t be able to actually speak — as they explain, with passion and detail, why such a thing would be: 1) a boondoggle; 2) catastrophe; 3) oh, you get the idea. I’d guess you have to say they have been successful. There haven’t been any new rail tracks going in lately. As the area continues to grow and the post-recession housing boom brings more residents and cars into clogged neighborhoods, something has to give. “A cultural change has to occur,” Sharpe said. “Not from users, because they’ll quickly figure out how to use new transportation, but from bureaucracy. The only thing we lack now is the willingness to act.” If something like this can bring traffic to a near standstill on such a wide scale, maybe we should pay more attention to this issue. Imagine if that wreck happened with a Category 4 hurricane bearing down while thousands of cars were going nowhere fast. It’s something to think about, and since you’ll probably spend a lot of time stuck in traffic, the good news is you’ll have plenty of time.