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Does good mass transit bring good jobs? Some say no

TAMPA — Despite all the hype, a well-developed mass transit system doesn’t really give cities and counties a leg up in competing for high-paying jobs.

At least that was the opinion of some executives who talked to Hillsborough County’s transportation policy group Wednesday. The executives, who specialize in helping industries find suitable locations, said other factors are more important to businesses: a skilled work force, the weather, and the ability to move products quickly and cheaply by highway, port, airport or railroad.

But traffic gridlock as a detractor? Not really.

“Would they really not do a project just because there’s a little bit of traffic congestion here at 5 o’clock?” asked C.J. Evans, of Merit Advisors.

It was a startling message for the policy group, which is trying to decide what transportation improvements should be made and in what areas to spur economic development. The group consists of all seven county commissioners, the mayors of the county’s three cities and the chairman of the HART bus system board.

The policy makers also heard from three manufacturing managers at the Wednesday meeting who said their workers would use mass transit if it was more convenient.

Ken Jurgensmeyer, operations manager at Heat Pipe Technology, said he doesn’t think any of his employees use the HART bus system. But that could change, Jurgensmeyer said, if more bus routes were available and the buses could get his employees to work at their 6 a.m. starting time.

“I think (it would work) with an outreach program, where it would make it into the culture of the organization,” said Jurgensmeyer. “We’re an energy recovery company so we would promote that.”

Tom Morris, plant manager of Plastipak Packaging in Plant City, said as many as 15 percent of his workers would ride a bus to work if there were numerous and convenient routes. Morris said he came from Atlanta where 30 percent of his employees rode either the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority trains or buses to work.

“I think it would make an impact,” he said, referring to an expanded bus system.

Members of the policy group said the message they got was that mass transit is important to some businesses and not so important to others. Commissioner Kevin Beckner said business managers in the New Tampa area have told him they have trouble getting their employees to and from work.

“I guess it would depend on the work force,” Beckner said.

Commissioner Mark Sharpe, who pushed for creation of the policy group, said after the meeting he still believes an efficient and expanded mass transit system is vital to creating high-paying technology and biological science jobs in the county.

To back his argument, Sharpe cited the online publication, Area Development, which ranks different metropolitan statistical areas of the country in terms of their economic development potential. The Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater MSA was ranked 315th out of 380, Sharpe said.

The Denver area, on the other hand, was ranked 7th. Sharpe said Denver has 1,000 buses compared to Hillsborough County’s 200. Plus, Denver is planning to increase it light rail system from 35 miles of track to 155 miles, he said. In 2010, Hillsborough voters rejected a transportation tax of 1 cent per dollar to build a light rail system, as well as buy more buses and expand roads.

“When you look at where the regions are which are producing the best in regards to job creation and economic development, it’s those areas that have invested in their transit systems and their buses,” Sharpe said.

Meanwhile, the county government responded to a request from pro-transit groups to create a timetable for the policy group’s work. By Nov. 30, the group should identify economic development areas and a transportation network that will serve those areas.

After that, the policy group will create some type of governance mechanism that would implement the plans. That mechanism _ yet to be identified _ would be in place by Jan. 31.

The governing group would adopt a business plan by Sept. 1, 2014, which would include some way of funding the projects. By Oct. 1, 2014, the initial projects would begin.

County Commission Chairman Ken Hagan insisted that the plan’s timetable be flexible and the policy group agreed. Leaders of the coalition pushing for mass transit said they were happy with the plan.

“They provided a schedule with robust public input,” said Kevin Thurman, director of Connect Tampa Bay, a pro-transit group. “It shows elected leaders and county staff are committed to not only discussing this issue, but taking action on it and taking action in a reasonable amount of time.”

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