FL: Transportation Town Hall Meeting Pitches Transit to Young Business Leaders

June 25--TAMPA -- With the community abuzz with transportation news lately -- a possible high-speed ferry, a new intermodal center next to Interstate 275 and an expanded transit system -- the millenials of the business community want to keep the conversation moving forward.

Emerge Tampa Bay hosted a transportation panel Wednesday night with local policy makers in an effort to do just that. Emerge is an offshoot of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, made up of business leaders between 21 and 35 years old. The informal town hall meeting -- the group's third -- took place at the University of Tampa's Vaughn Center, with some 150 in attendance.

They had plenty of questions, including how Hillsborough and Pinellas counties would coordinate efforts if they each manage to get funding for more robust transit systems.

One answer, said Katharine Eagan, interim chief executive officer of the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority, could be smart phone apps and regional fare cards to help connect the systems in both counties and beyond.

Tourists also will be able to use an app that will allow their smartphone to be used as a fare card anywhere in the region, said Brad Miller, CEO of Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority.

Additional funding, Miller and Eagan said, would allow both counties to offer expanded services.

When that happens, people like Lyndi Jordan, a Tampa resident who spends three hours daily commuting one way to her job in St. Petersburg, will catch a break, officials said. Jordan, who said she enjoys commuting by bus, told the panel she looks forward to the days when both counties offer bus service more often and for more hours each day.

If Pinellas voters in November approve a sales tax increase that would fund a much more expansive transit system, it will light the spark Hillsborough needs to keep up the momentum, said Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin Beckner.

Approval in Pinellas, he said, would mean Hillsborough would have a much better chance in 2016 of passing a similar sales tax increase for an expanded transit system and road improvements.

Eventually, transit proponents say, the two counties will be tied together not just by buses, but by a light rail system. The Florida Department of Transportation, in upgrading Interstate 275, is including in its construction plans a median platform in the Westshore area that could support such a rail system.

Expanded transit is not a question of if, but when, Miller said.

Some in the audience asked what they could do to keep the conversation going.

Contact lawmakers and fellow business leaders, Eagan told the group. "Tell them you are registered to vote and what is important to you."

"You've got some (Hillsborough County) leaders who get it," Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch said. "Elect folks that strongly support moving Hillsborough forward with transportation."

Several people also asked about the proposal to run a commuter ferry between Apollo Beach and MacDill Air Force base.

The county has already appropriated $125,000 to study the proposal being pitched by former county commissioner and local business entrepreneur Ed Turanchik, who is working with South Swell Development Group and HMS Ferries on the plan. Beckner said he is optimistic.

"We're moving cautiously forward with it," Beckner said. "I have high hopes this will move forward.''

yhammett@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7127

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