Article by: Caitlin Johnston

For the full story visit: Tampa Bay Times

Tampa Bay’s regional transportation agency is set to get a new name — and a new focus.

The Florida House of Representatives unanimously passed a bill Wednesday that will reshape the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority. The Florida Senate passed its version last week, and the bill awaits Gov. Rick Scott’s signature.

The legislation will do three things:

• Change the second “T” in TBARTA from Transportation to Transit. This highlights the agency’s new mission: to bring a regionwide transit system to the area, whether its express buses, rail or some other mode of transit.

• Narrows the scope of member counties from seven to five. (Citrus and Sarasota didn’t make the cut.) Proponents are hoping cutting down the size will help re-focus the agency.

• Restructures the governance of the board so that it includes representation from the business community, not just elected officials.

The Tampa Bay Partnership, Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik and University of South Florida president Judy Genshaft all lobbied for the bill, which is the first of several steps the local business community has planned to address regional transit issues.

“This just scratches the surface,” said Tampa Bay Partnership president Rick Homans. “There’s a lot more to be done.”

What that regional transit system might look like, how much it could cost and how the bay area would pay for it are all still up in the air. The bill simply creates a more focused group to help answer those questions, Homans said.

There is already talk of putting together legislation for next year that would address how to fund TBARTA, which currently does not have a budget or taxing authority that would allow it to build or operate any future transit projects.

Until then, TBARTA’s existing staff will focus on implementing the bill, such as changing logos and contracts to reflect the new name, said TBARTA executive director Ray Chiaramonte.

New board members are supposed to be appointed within 45 days of the bill’s signing. The agency will also be required to create a regional transit development plan, a document that would prioritize projects across multiple counties.

TBARTA would not interfere with any transit projects contained within a single county and operated by the existing local transit agencies, Homans said, such as the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority or the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority.

The repurposing of TBARTA over the next year or two coincides with an ongoing regional transit study that the Florida Department of Transportation paid for to identify whether rail, express bus or other types of transit will work in Tampa Bay. That study is expected to wrap-up next year, by which time Homans and others are hoping the reshaped TBARTA will be in place to oversee the development of any resulting regional projects.

That could be rail, but it doesn’t have to be, Chairamonte said. The bill requires that an independent feasibility study be completed before proceeding with a rail project. If a state-funded rail projected was selected, it would require approval from the legislature and the transportation planning groups in the counties where it would run.

Even if rail were selected, Chiaramonte said, it would likely be done in conjunction with other projects, like rapid bus and van pools.

“We need to be realistic, incremental, thoughtful and really not just saying, “This technology’s the silver bullet,” he said. “I don’t believe in silver bullets. We need all kinds of things in the right proportion.”