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Friday, Oct 24, 2014

Brown: Transit plan won't help traffic mess

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Now that the contentious race to replace the late C.W. Bill Young is over, local voters have another issue they should pay attention to that will be on the November ballot: the Greenlight Pinellas plan.

According to its website, the goals of organizers of the referendum that would raise the sales tax 1 percent are: elimination of PSTA's property tax; a 65 percent increase in overall bus service throughout Pinellas; bus rapid transit lines on most major Pinellas corridors; buses running to and from Tampa and the airport in the evenings and on weekends; a four-fold increase in bus service in northern Pinellas; and longer hours to accommodate second-shift workers and evening travelers.

In 2010, a similar measure across the bay, Moving Hillsborough Forward, was voted down 58 percent to 42 percent.

Still, it would appear that the timing of such a plan couldn't be better. According to a report released Monday by the American Public Transportation Association, more Americans used buses, trains and subways in 2013 than in any year since 1956. Some 10.65 billion trips were taken on transit systems last year.

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I don't know if the referendum will pass, but this I do know: No matter how much we upgrade public transportation, traffic here will still be a mess.

I base this not on any in-depth projections from traffic engineers, but on what I've seen in metro areas with hundreds of miles of commuter rail and bus routes that reach most residents. My hometown of Chicago and its suburbs are a good example.

For more than a century, Chicago has had elevated train lines that can take you all over the city, as well as buses you can board once you get off the “L,” as it is called. In addition, there are commuter trains that extend all directions into neighboring counties and carry hundreds of thousands of people daily.

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Yet the traffic there is as bad as it's ever been. Commuting times are longer now than they've ever been and show no sign of improving. The same goes for many cities, such as Washington, which built its Metro train line in the early '70s but still has overcrowded interstates and streets.

The reasons for this are simple. For one, we Americans love our cars. And whereas I grew up in a time when no family on my block had more than one car, today every licensed driver in a household seems to have one. Also, modern gadgets like smartphones and iPods make a driver's stuck-in-traffic time much more bearable.

Adding to the problem are land-use patterns of the past 30 years that require cars. Some modern developments with cul-de-sacs make it necessary to drive as far as two miles to get to the house of a neighbor with whom you share a back fence.

Don't get me wrong, public transportation is necessary if for no other reason than to provide alternatives to the automobile, especially for the poor and disabled. But while construction of rail lines and the addition of more bus routes will ease traffic congestion, local highways and roads will likely still be jammed.

Voters on this referendum need to ask themselves if a “yes” vote will get them to leave their car at home and, if not, is it worth it for those who want to — or those who have no alternative.

You have eight months to decide.

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