TAMPA — Some 40 transportation planners and politicians met Thursday with U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx to discuss the growing conversation on transit and highway issues here and the possibility of getting future federal funding for light rail.
Foxx, traveling back from the dedication of a new runway at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, flew in to Tampa International Airport to meet with Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, County Commission Chairman Mark Sharpe, Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce President Bob Rohrlack and others to discuss a bill he and President Obama are attempting to get through Congress and to discuss regional transportation issues.
“We had a very interesting conversation about population growth and the need in this area to move freight,” Foxx said during a press briefing following the meeting, which was hosted by the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce. He urged the group to take “bold steps” in its effort to meet ongoing transportation needs here. He also urged them to back his effort called the GROW America Act, which, according to his website, supports millions of American jobs repairing and modernizing roads, bridges, railways and other transit systems.
GROW, or Generating Renewal, Opportunity and Work is meant to accelerate efficient modes of transportation and ensure that American businesses can compete effectively in the global market through exporting, according to the website.
Rohrlack said Foxx urged the group to work with its legislative delegation to get them on board with the four-year $300 billion program and get it approved.
“We had a fair amount of conversation about regionalism,” Foxx said. “The economy is organized around regions,” so planning transportation systems regionally makes good sense, he said. It also gives this area a better chance of obtaining federal funding, Foxx said.
Foxx “is a past mayor, so he gets our issues,” Rohrlack said. “We talked about how we can be part of the conversation and we told him about our transportation plan.”
The area’s mayors and county commissioners have been meeting for months, working to hammer out a regional transportation plan to move road-building and repair along and improve the mass transit system. The plan calls for holding a referendum on a 1-cent sales tax to fund the projects over 30 years. That vote could come some time in 2016. The plan could eventually include light rail that would connect Hillsborough and Pinellas counties.
“He told us not to hold back or we would be left in the dust” of those who don’t, Sharpe said. “He told us ‘don’t be timid’ and to continue a close partnership with neighboring communities.