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Businesses weigh in with transportation priorities to help regional plan

— Many commuters struggling daily with gridlock want a more streamlined traffic flow and break-through transit choices.

Those are findings from a survey of members conducted by the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce as transportation options reach the forefront of conversation in the business community and as a big push is under way to land a Fortune 500 business headquarters here.

The chamber presented its findings Tuesday to the Metropolitan Planning Organization Board, which does a regional transportation plan for Tampa, Plant City, Temple Terrace and unincorporated Hillsborough County.

“Transportation is a critical component for the region’s success and we, as a business organization, had to address it,” said Michael Maurino, the chamber’s director of government relations. “Employers and their employees agree the status quo is not going to be enough to improve economic development.”

Maurino said the survey will help inform the county’s Transportation Policy Leadership Group, working to devise a funding plan for transportation improvements, about what the business community wants.

The policy group, made up of all seven county commissioners and representatives from each of the three municipalities, is crafting a transportation plan that will include $6 billion in road, bridge, trail and transit projects. A 1 cent per dollar sales tax increase to pay for the upgrades could go before voters as early as 2016.

More than 2,500 employees and employers, mostly from the downtown area, took the Chamber survey, answering questions on where they live, where they work and what their priorities are for an improved commute. Maurino said chamber committee members passed along the survey to area businesses and it also was promoted on Facebook, Twitter and in a Tampa Tribune insert.

No attempt was made to create a scientific sampling of respondents so the results reflect only the position of those who happened to answer.

Ninety two percent of those surveyed — many who work for Tampa Electric Co. and Tampa General Hospital — said they drive alone to work, do not use transit as a primary mode of transportation and aren’t real interested in expanding the status quo, like standard bus service.

Synchronized traffic signals got high marks on the survey as a way to keep traffic moving smoothly. Respondents also cited their desire for additional lanes on interstates and expressways, new transit options like ferry service, rail and express bus service and for wider secondary roads.

“People want new options, rather than more of what we already have,” Maurino told the MPO board.

“This is not scientific, but does give us a base to speak from and a base for where else we have to drill down in terms of how we talk about transportation and transit to improve economic development and quality of life,” Maurino said. He said the chamber may conduct a more in-depth survey later this year.

“Pedestrian safety in this community is a concern,” but when the issue is up against other transportation concerns, those surveyed did not give it a high priority, Maurino said.

Still, Tampa City Councilman Harry Cohen, who sits on the MPO board, said it is imperative that the MPO keep safety as a top priority, especially in light of the county’s poor record for pedestrian deaths and bike-car crashes.

“It’s great to see people so in favor of the automated traffic signal concept, because the city has a very aggressive program to implement that,” Cohen said. “Westshore and Gandy Boulevard are getting it. It’s not a surprise that when people are asked, safety isn’t a top priority, but it is very important that we make it a top priority.”

The Chamber has yet to take a position on plans by the Transportation Policy Leadership Group to take a tax referendum to the voters. Maurino said the chamber won’t take a position until it sees the final proposal.

The leadership group is about to begin a series of 36 public forums, make phone calls and conduct online surveys to collect information it will use to create that final plan.

The consensus among the leadership is that the public will not vote in favor of a sales tax increase unless it knows exactly what it will get and who will benefit from the transportation upgrades. The public forums are designed to get that information out.

The county is preparing to begin its public input campaign Feb. 17. County Administrator Mike Merrill says, “The real question is what people see value in. Once they see value, typically they will pay for it. Our public outreach will give that context.”

yhammett@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7127

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