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Sunday, Apr 20, 2014
Joe Henderson

Henderson: Big solutions start with ‘The Conversation’

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We tend to look for city, county or state government to solve every big problem around here, but we also know that doesn’t always work so well. Forward-thinking communities can’t just give up on high-stakes issues like mass transit, education and growth management.

So what to do?

That’s what a small group of friends asked themselves a few months ago. They wondered exactly what Tampa and the surrounding region will look like by the year 2020. They wondered if stressing public-private partnerships would be a better way to go than just trusting politicians to take care of things.

“Then we thought, maybe we should start a dialogue with people that looks ahead,” said Rolfe Arnhym, the chairman of Vistage Florida — a business consulting firm.

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From that, a free-wheeling gathering called “The Conversation” began with an eclectic mix of about 15 participants. I was invited to join the chat a couple of days ago at the Holland & Knight law firm in downtown Tampa.

“The purpose is to stimulate a conversation, not just with the group but with the entire community,” Arnhym said. “We wanted to have a bigger purpose.”

We talked about a lot of things in that 90-minute chat, including the possibility of how to prepare for potentially major cutbacks at MacDill in a couple of years. We kicked around thoughts about how the area should try to identify itself to the rest of the country.

There was a lot of talk about mass transit, as you can imagine. That’s one of my big issues, as regular readers of this space might have discerned by now. And no, the solution wasn’t just “tax ’em ’til they bleed.” Building more roads and adding HART bus routes isn’t the long-term magic bullet either, so we have to keep plugging away at the problem.

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I called Hillsborough County Commissioner Al Higginbotham on Friday, partly to accomplish the group’s goals of taking the conversation further into the community. Higginbotham is the only commissioner who lives east of Interstate 75, so he is uniquely equipped to understand what’s happening there.

About 200,000 more people are expected to reside there by 2020, and as anyone who lives in Brandon or the surrounding area can attest, getting around is already a nightmare. Higginbotham has studied this issue extensively.

“The HART routes in east Hillsborough are heavily used,” he said. “They’re like standing-room only already, so that tells me buses are an integral component going forward. I would like to have dedicated bus lanes on the interstate. I think that would make a big difference.”

I brought up rail because, well, I believe it’s the next big step the area needs to take. But instead of building an expensive light-rail system from scratch that might run huge budget deficits, using a commuter system with existing CSX tracks might make more sense. That’s similar to what Orlando is doing with its SunRail system.

“I would love to see a public use of the CSX lines,” Higginbotham said.

Given the heavy regulation of the rail industry, trying to piggyback a commuter system on CSX tracks would take a lot of conversations.

That’s how ideas start. Bring people together with different views, needs and backgrounds. Opponents need a seat the table, too, because we’re all in this together. Then you keep the conversation going to find solutions to benefit everyone. That’s what these folks are trying to do.

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