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Thursday, Aug 28, 2014
Commentary

Building the region into an economic juggernaut


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There is much to discuss.

Central Florida figures prominently in the agenda. Representatives of All Aboard Florida will discuss plans for the nation’s first privately financed passenger rail service connecting Orlando and Miami by 2015.

Updates also are planned on SunRail, the commuter rail service linking Volusia County with Orlando in its first phase, and the I-4 Master Plan for Orlando.

The ultimate priority must be to link our regions and key economic hubs within the Tampa Bay area with improved mass transit to make the super region a global economic powerhouse.

Our ability to attract talented workers, create high-wage jobs and improve the quality of life for citizens is directly linked to improved transportation options and regional mobility.

Florida’s economic future is tied to transportation solutions that make it easier for tourists to visit, residents to get to work, and businesses to move goods. We are engaged in a global battle to create high-wage jobs, and our competition is not sitting idle.

Where does the Tampa Bay area stand? Area Development, the leading publication for corporate site selection and relocation, recently ranked Tampa 315 out of 380 metropolitan areas. Denver ranked No. 4, Austin No. 5, Seattle No. 24, and Phoenix No. 98.

The message is clear: Businesses want to locate in cities and regions “that know how to grow their economy and have a track record to prove it,” the publication says. Investing in transportation is one important way to demonstrate we are prepared to grow our economy.

A Kaufmann Foundation study reported in inc.com last month lists the nation’s top 20 metro areas by high-tech startup density. Startup companies continue to be the dominant driver of net job growth in America. Denver ranked No. 4, Seattle No. 5, Salt Lake No. 7 and Phoenix No. 13.

Tampa did not make the rankings.

What is the end result? A recent Bureau of Economic Analysis report comparing per-capita GDP of national metro areas gives us a glimpse: Seattle’s is $64,000 and Denver’s is $55,000, while Tampa’s per-capita GDP is a dismal $36,000.

We can accept the status quo or choose to vigorously compete. A bold vision for improving mass transit will be essential.

Here’s how we can move forward:

Link region’s largest business districts: The Pinellas Gateway district and Hillsborough County’s Westshore district are the region’s largest business areas, separated by

only 12 miles. Let’s connect them, first by rapid bus transit and then with rail should ridership projections warrant and development opportunities along the route show a positive return on investment.

Link to Tampa International Airport: Tampa International Airport is moving forward on a $2.5 billion master plan, which includes linking its main terminal to a new rental car facility by “people mover.” Plans to link the rental car facility to a proposed Westshore Multimodal Center with enhanced transit and local shuttle and pedestrian connections are now being studied by the Florida Department of Transportation.

Modernize the Howard Frankland Bridge: Plans for reconstruction of the Howard Frankland should offer bus toll lanes and the opportunity for passenger rail service that could link the Tampa Bay area to Orlando and Miami.

Once All Aboard Florida links Miami to Orlando, you can bet that this region — anchored by a Gateway/Westshore and TIA all connected by transit — will offer a prime location for the next connection.

Spur job creation by connecting our startup community: Tech startups in particular can be a strong force for economic growth if we provide easy connections to the talent, universities, innovation hubs and medical research centers that fuel innovation and job creation. Let’s provide the transit connections that startups need to remain here and thrive.

Promote medical tourism by connecting our health-care industry: At the other end of the economic spectrum, we have a strong health-care industry. Pinellas County is home to All Children’s Hospital, Johns Hopkins and BayCare Health, the region’s largest health care system. Tampa boasts a trifecta of health care centers of excellence in Moffitt Cancer Center, USF’s Byrd Alzheimer’s Institute and Florida Hospital’s Pepin Heart Institute. In Tampa General Hospital, the region’s only Level 1 trauma center, we have one of the nation’s busiest organ transplant hospitals and USF’s teaching hospital.

We have the opportunity to establish medical tourism and disruptive health-care innovation as a powerful economic driver by linking the region’s major medical centers to our airport and proposed Westshore Multimodal Center by transit.

Young professionals, filling the ranks of organizations such as Emerge Tampa Bay and Connect Tampa Bay, are eager to rebrand the Tampa Bay area as a cool place to live, work and play. They want bold action and a place at the table to discuss how we move forward.

The Oct. 10 Summit is designed to elevate the conversation about transportation as we work together to build the region into an economic juggernaut.

Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe is chairman of the County’s Metropolitan Planning Commission.

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