Thursday, March 7, 2013

Florida Healthy Air Campaign


Residents of the Tampa Bay area love where they live. The area is flush with cultural and educational institutions, its beaches consistently rank among the best in the U.S., and the region boasts an extensive network of parks. In 2008, Forbes ranked Tampa as the 5th-best outdoor city in the country.
But one area where the region lags is public transportation. "The Tampa Bay region is the last major metro area in the U.S. without a multi-modal transportation system," says Sierra Club organizer Phil Compton, below. "As a result, we're too dependent on cars, making tailpipe emissions the primary local source of carbon and ozone."
Phil-ComptonCompton says the Tampa-St. Pete metro area suffers from chronic traffic congestion, some of the nation's longest commute times, Florida's worst air quality, the country's highest proportional expense for transportation, and its most dangerous streets for bicycles and pedestrians.
Enter the Sierra Club's Green Transportation for Tampa Bay campaign, which scored a major victory at the end of February when the Pinellas County Commission voted 5-1 to place transit funding on next year's ballot. The initiative would raise the local sales tax by one cent to fund the construction and operation of a new light-rail line while also immediately doubling the frequency and routes of bus service throughout the entire county.
Immediately after the Pinellas vote, county commissioners in neighboring Hillsborough County scheduled a transit summit for its March meeting to get busy on a similar transit initiative. Hillsborough County is home to the city of Tampa; Pinellas County is home to St. Petersburg and Clearwater, which would be linked by the Pinellas County light-rail line.
Pinellas-County-hearingThe events represent a 180-degree swing from 2010, when anti-transit forces defeated a transit referendum in Hillsborough County. But since then, Sierra Club activists with the Suncoast and Tampa Bay groups, along with progressive ally Awake Pinellas, have tirelessly promoted a transportation vision for the region, showing up and speaking at hearings, lobbying decision-makers, educating the public, and mobilizing support for transit. Their efforts are now paying off.
Below, Florida Green Transportation Team leader Jim Shirk talks about the connection between transportation and Tampa's air quality problems at the Clean Air Fair, held in downtown Tampa in May 2012.
"The movement in Pinellas County to create the first light rail in the area can be the beginning of an enormous regional transit system," Compton says. "Thanks to the Sierra Club's campaign, there is now reason to hope that decades of delay and defeat will end next year for this region of 2.2 million people who suffer daily from one of America's worst urban transit systems. Many people thought this turn of events was unlikely after the events of 2010, but the Sierra Club team really turned things around."

Above, Tampa Bay Sierra Club chair Marcia Biggs spends her play money wisely as she invests in her top transit priorities at a public transportation workshop, held jointly by the Suncoast Sierra Club and the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority. Below, transit supporters packed the house at the January 23 meeting of the Pinellas County Commission to recommend putting the transit referendum on the November 2014 ballot.
Transit naysayers had previously dominated the conversation at meetings of the county's transit authority board and county commission, but that changed ended with a critical meeting in June 2012, now called "the turning point for the future of transportation for the Gulf Coast of Florida" by the transit authority chair.
Plans by Tea Party-supported commissioners to eliminate light rail from the county's transit plan were derailed as Sierra Club activists and allies packed the house that day and at all subsequent meetings when decisions were made on whether to move the process forward.
Below, Tim Martin of Awake Pinellas preps over 100 supporters of green transportation before a key transit authority vote. Awake Pinellas and the Sierra Club worked together over an 8-month period to create a huge turnout at every important transit meeting, overwhelming the efforts of transit opponents who sought to prevent green transportation initiatives from moving forward.
The pro-transit movement in the Tampa Bay area received a boost in December with the creation of Connect Tampa Bay, a new transportation education and advocacy group that is now working hand-in-hand with the Sierra Club to promote a 21st-century transit vision for the region and turn that vision into reality at the ballot box.
Below, activists Kofi Hunt and Lauren Reilly at last summer's Hands Across the Sand event to move the Forida Gulf Coast beyond oil by supporting the creation of green transit and energy options that will allow residents and tourists alike to get around the Tampa Bay area without using so much oil.
"While plans for rail, rapid bus and 'complete streets' transportation improvements have been discussed for decades," Compton says, "it took the involvement of Sierra Club's Green Transportation for Tampa Bay campaign to organize the support needed for leaders to find the political will to finally move these plans into action. And it's time. Most people want this to move forward. They want the same choices as people have elsewhere in America."