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 St. Petersburg-based 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."
Compton 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 November'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.
The 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."