TAMPA — Without the backing of the business community, the regional transit system will be hard-pressed to expand successfully, members of the Hillsborough County Hotel and Motel Association heard Thursday.
Tampa City Councilman Mike Suarez, who also serves as board chairman for the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit (HART) board, spoke to the group during its June membership luncheon.
“We need better choices for our community,” Suarez said. “The most important thing about transit is that it helps develop our businesses.” In Cleveland, he said, a city with an award-winning transit system, $4 billion to $5 billion has been invested near its two hubs, proof that transit can bring economic growth.
“The easier it is to get around, the easier it is to sell hotel and motel rooms. We want to be able to provide mass transit” for trips to the zoo and Pinellas County beaches, he said. To do that, a truly regional transit system must be in place.
And, he said HART needs more money to make the transit system more robust. “We may need a sales tax.” Suarez spoke briefly about the ongoing discussion among area elected officials to put a referendum before voters for a sales tax that would pay for expanded rapid transit coordinated between counties, among other projects.
“We have 186 buses and vans. We probably should have double that for a city and county of our size,” Suarez said.
Hotel and Motel Association director Bob Morrison, said better transit could be a true benefit to the business community.
“Rapid transit, or transit in general in our community has been transformed,” Morrison said. The transformation was triggered by MetroRapid, HART’s limited answer to bus rapid transit — express buses that have fewer stops and that can manipulate traffic lights to stay on a faster schedule.
“Bus rapid transit is our next goal,” Suarez said. Regional planners are working with the Florida Department of Transportation right now on a plan to add express toll lanes to local Interstates 275, 75 and 4 that could be used by both cars and buses to loosen gridlock.
“We need to have partnerships between government and business,” Suarez said. “Engage your political leaders to say what you want out of transit. It affects business in a positive way.”