Nonprofit group pushes transportation upgrades in Tampa area
TAMPA - Leaders of a new nonprofit group, Connect Tampa Bay, say they want to give average citizens a voice in coming debates over public transportation in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties. The group has come together during the two years since Hillsborough County voters said no to a penny-a-dollar sales tax for transportation projects. Though the tax was soundly defeated, people here still want more transportation options, said Brian Willis, president of Connect Tampa Bay. "We've been sort of talking together and with local leaders about how do we move forward with modern transportation in the Tampa Bay area," said Willis, who served on the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority citizen advisory committee. "Nobody else is stepping up," he said. "If nobody's going to lead, then we're going to lead with a grassroots transportation organization."The group's executive director, Kevin Thurman, agreed, saying the referendum's defeat didn't mean people's minds were closed to new investments in transportation projects. "I think the important thing that happened over the last two years is we've gone from saying, 'OK, people shot down the referendum,' to realizing, no that's not true," Thurman said. "It was just that specific plan at that specific time that people didn't want." Besides Willis and Thurman, the other directors of the organization are Brian Seel, who works in the construction industry, and Brandie Miklus, a certified urban planner. Willis said the group has been talking to local political leaders like Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and Hillsborough and Pinellas county commissioners. Willis, who served on the Tampa Bay Area Regional Planning Authority's citizen advisory committee, said the referendum's defeat did not quiet discussion in business and government circles about expanding transportation options. Buckhorn has said he supports state legislation allowing cities to hold their own tax referendums to build rail or rapid transit bus systems. Now, tax referendums must be conducted among voters countywide. In Pinellas County, a regional transit proposal would expand the county's bus system by 70 percent and add a 24-mile light rail system with 16 stations between St. Petersburg and Clearwater. A new survey by the Hillsborough Metropolitan Planning Organization showed transportation is a major problem for county residents, and one they think political leaders have failed to address. Transportation improvements most favored in focus groups for the planning organization include intersection improvements, road and bridge maintenance and replacement, pedestrian safety and expanded bus service. "People in both Hillsborough and Pinellas list transportation as their No. 1 issue along with jobs," Willis said. "When you expand the conversation and look at issues like trails, vast majorities support more investment in our transportation system." Thurman drew community attention earlier when he and architect Ken Cowart organized a coalition that successfully pushed to delay demolition of the Friendship Trail Bridge over Tampa Bay. Hillsborough County is now studying options for rebuilding or replacing the span with a linear park connecting Hillsborough and Pinellas counties. Hillsborough Commissioner Mark Sharpe has been a leading voice advocating for mass transit as economic development vehicle. Sharpe said Connect Tampa Bay might provide the impetus needed to move the issue forward. "We need a modern transportation system and it needs to be driven forward by citizens like Kevin and Ken," Sharpe said. "We've seen the deficiencies but we've not been capable of putting it together like citizens can. So the idea of citizens leading the connections is fantastic." Willis said the group's Website, www.ConnectTB.com, would be up by late Monday afternoon.