Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Hillsborough Moves Forward to Clean, Green Transportation Options

Hillsborough's new express bus, the MetroRapid: a start
towards a convenient countywide bus system. 
After decades of delay in investing in cleaner transit options that would give residents and visitors a choice between driving and taking a bus, train, bike or their feet to their destination, Tampa Bay is finally moving ahead to end its dubious distinction as the only metropolitan area in the U.S. where virtually everyone must own and drive a car for every trip. The area is also America's 2nd riskiest place, next to Orlando, to walk down the street or ride a bike.

Why is this so important from an environmental standpoint? 70% of the oil we use goes to transportation. Hillsborough’s extreme dependence on cars for transportation results in over half of its smog coming from our tailpipes, a significant difference from most of America, where coal-fired power plants produce up to ¾ of smog and carbon emitted in cities that offer cleaner transit options. Here in Tampa Bay, it’s just as important to move beyond our use of oil for transportation as it is to stop using coal for energy.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is now considering updated protections from dangerous smog (ground-level ozone) pollution. Health experts, epidemiologists, and numerous medical organizations have clearly stated that the existing Bush-era standard of 75 parts per billion (ppb) is not adequate to protect public health, particularly vulnerable populations such as children, the elderly and those with breathing ailments like asthma. These same experts report that smog pollution at levels as low as 55 or 60ppb can trigger asthma attacks and send children to the hospital.
We have too many days like this. 

Hillsborough County annually gets an “F” grade from the American Lung Association for having the largest number of days each year when our Florida sunshine converts local tailpipe emissions into levels of smog that far exceed the current 75 ppb standard, smog levels hazardous for our 1 in 10 kids who suffer with asthma, as well as seniors with COPD. This air pollution usually ignores county lines to make breathing difficult for millions in the region.

In Pinellas County, thanks in large part to support from the Suncoast Sierra Club, the Greenlight Pinellas plan will create dramatic improvements in bus service and a light rail system between major employment centers in Clearwater, St. Petersburg and the Gateway area, just across a new I-275 bridge built to handle rail. Pinellas residents vote Nov. 4 on whether to move forward.

Across the bay in Hillsborough, Sierra Club and allies Connect Tampa Bay and FCAN have succeeded in organizing support for creating such new options there. In the past year, residents have made it clear they want the same freedom to choose such options. As a result of our coalition’s work, we have gone from pessimism that we could ever try again to get voter approval after the defeat of the 2010 ballot referendum, to a commitment by the Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill to move to a 2016 vote to invest in a new transit system.

Instead of unveiling the plan to county leaders at the same August 12th meeting where the commission and mayors would vote to approve, Connect Tampa Bay’s public records request forced Merrill to release plans two weeks early so that the public could see them in advance. Here they are:

While plans are still in a formative stage, with a 1 cent sales tax that would raise over $6 Billion for transportation, the County might invest in:
  •          “premium transit” (light rail, rapid bus transit, ferry), anywhere from 35% to 52%,
  •          bus service, from 13% - 18%
  •          road improvements (intersections, roadways, technology, bridges, repaving: 32-44% of the total, of which 6-8% is for sidewalks and trails to make streets safer for cyclists and pedestrians.

While today the Tampa Bay Times has slammed this draft plan as " ... a data dump that compiles road and mass transit projects that various agencies have had on their wish lists for years.", the plan's creation of new transit options and investment in safer, complete streets is to be applauded, even though it doesn't specify an investment in the "cycle track" approach of bike lanes with physical barriers to protect cyclists from cars. 

What remains to be seen is if this plan will match the proportions of 75% for transit and 25% for roads that comprised the 2010 proposal. We can reach that goal and give everyone the opportunity to use cleaner forms of transportation with an emphasis on investment in the options we now lack. 

Some still doubt that residents here really want what the rest of America already takes for granted: the right to choose to get around sometimes by means other than a car. A limited public outreach effort last year and County poll confirmed that people here do have a strong desire for new clean options. If Hillsborough County moves forward now with a robust, extensive process of asking citizens what they want, the County's plan will reflect the people's desire for a new green transportation system that gets 75% of new transportation funds. 

With a commitment to public engagement, Hillsborough County can solve its our biggest economic, environmental and public health problem. Sierra Club’s Florida Healthy Air Campaign will be involved to help make sure the public gets its say.

Phil Compton, Regional Organizing Representative
Sierra Club National Beyond Oil & Florida Healthy Air Campaign
1990 Central Avenue    St. Petersburg, FL 33712
office: 727-824-8813, ext. 303      phil.compton@sierraclub.org