A Case for Public Transit

By Hannah Wallace June 30, 2008

I am a fan of public transportation. Growing up in Germany and working as a journalist in Latin America, I spent hours on buses, trains and subways. I waved good-bye to transit when my family moved to Sarasota 12 years ago. But Hurricane Katrina’s messy aftermath in New Orleans and rising bills made us rethink our lifestyle. So we became a one-car family and started using buses again. I also joined others 18 months ago to start the Transit Group Sarasota-Manatee to advocate for better public transportation.

Let me tell you where the wind is blowing in Florida:

• Throughout the state, hundreds of thousands of middle-class people are trying to get out of their wallet-draining, foreign oil-guzzling, climate-warming boxes on wheels. (Miami-Dade County Transit, which has about 130 million boardings per year, saw 5 million more just in April. Most other transit systems in Florida saw increases between 5 and 10 percent.) Local governments—including Sarasota County—are slowly beginning to put more dollars into expanding transit.

• Although state legislators derailed an (admittedly smelly) deal between the state and cargo rail operator CSX in May that would have freed track space for commuter rail, politicians in Orlando are dead-set to bring local rail service to their area.

•The state legislature failed to fund South Florida’s Tri-Rail system and Metrorail in Miami adequately this year, but the political heat is on officials to not only fund, but expand the system.

•In Tampa, business is throwing its weight behind urban rail. The state just provided startup funding for the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority, which includes Manatee and Sarasota counties.

Still, in Sarasota, and even more so in Manatee, elected officials and businesses have been slow to embrace transit. Even Prius-driving environmentalists often have a “Won’t work here” attitude towards transit.

I disagree. We do have an urban core ripe for high-frequency bus service. Tens of thousands of potential riders live and work in the cities of Sarasota and Bradenton, along the U.S. 41 corridor from Palmetto to Venice, and on the keys. Thousands of jobs are located along the Trail. Both the cities of Bradenton and Sarasota—with 4,458 and 3,734 people per square mile, respectively—are already at or above the 4,000-people density threshold traffic planners say allows for effective high-frequency bus service.

Density in our urban core will keep rising. Consider downtown Sarasota’s massive Irish-American project on the former Quay site on U.S. 41 or the equally large Proscenium mixed-use project across the street.

High-frequency bus service works along the routes with the highest population density: up and down Tamiami Trail, Beneva Road and the keys. Just hop on the 99 or 17 during rush hour, and see whether you can still get a seat. Or try the popular Anna Maria Island trolley on weekends.

The impetus for change here comes mostly from our local transit agencies, SCAT and MCAT. Lured by federal grants, SCAT administrators are drawing up a big Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) project with 10-minute service for north Sarasota County. (Kudos to the planners and SCAT chief Anthony Beckford for proposing this initiative.) If well done, BRT could become a powerful engine for economic development.

Given that BRT operations will require substantial and continuous local funding, however, expect political resistance. As a 70-something participant from Englewood remarked during a recent public meeting: “Why should my tax dollars go to something I personally can’t use? What if I am dead when BRT reaches Englewood?”

That attitude makes it imperative that we squeeze more out of existing resources. The Transit Group I’m a part of, for instance, suggests bus lines could be straightened out and bundled. Running major routes through downtown, instead of terminating all of them in the downtown transfer station, would make bus commutes shorter and more comfortable, while saving taxpayers a bundle. I won’t bother you with technicalities, but the Transit Group believes SCAT could offer 15-minute service on the Trail in a matter of months, if not weeks, between the airport and Gulf Gate Mall without capital improvements and without having to raise the operating budget considerably.

Now, why should businesspeople care?

For one, most studies since the early 1990s have proven that proximity to public transportation translates into higher property values.

Second, employers always want to broaden their pool of applicants. Good public transportation does that efficiently.

The third reason business should be interested: pedestrian- and bus-oriented development. We have development opportunities in downtown Bradenton and Sarasota, in the area surrounding Sarasota Memorial Hospital, the North Trail and the New College/USF/airport area.

At a time when banks are tightening their purse strings and an extended slowdown in commercial construction is looming, big developers are already moving into transit-oriented projects.

The main lure is this: Transit-oriented projects often are public-private partnerships. As such, they allow for cheaper financing through tax exemptions, sale-leasebacks, loan guarantees, federal grants and the like. In times of tight credit, that’s not a minor point. Plus, these projects have a built-in captive clientele: transit riders.

The St. Joe Corp., for instance, is building a mixed-use mega-project in Deerfield Beach around a Tri-Rail station. And developers are salivating over plans to build a “Grand Central Station” in downtown West Palm Beach, complete with retail and underground tracks.

If you want to learn more about transit and development, you can talk to some cutting-edge people right here. The folks at retail mega-developer Benderson are well aware of the value transit generates for commercial projects. And long-time developer consultant Joel Freedman is intimately familiar with public transportation issues. In a previous life, he used to run the public bus system of Boise, Idaho.

Sarasta’s Johannes Werner is the editor of Cuba Trade & Investment News and hosts the Florida-Caribe radio show on WSLR 96.5 FM. He can be reached at [email protected]

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