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Business leader: High-speed rail vital to region’s competitiveness

MANATEE

Transportation long has been a key issue for the Tampa Bay Partnership, a business consortium that focuses on stimulating economic growth and development in a seven-county region that includes Manatee County.

The group was instrumental in the creation of the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority, which has developed a long-range regional master transportation plan. The partnership also recently helped launch a lobbying campaign on behalf of Florida’s application for $2.6 billion in federal stimulus money to develop a high-speed rail line between Tampa and Orlando.

Stuart Rogel, the partnership’s president and chief executive, spoke with the Bradenton Herald about transportation and the high-speed rail proposal’s importance to the region.

Why is transportation so important to Tampa Bay’s business community?

Making sure we have adequate infrastructure in the Tampa Bay region is one of the key drivers of economic development and economic growth, and transportation obviously is one of the most important infrastructure components.

In this economy, with all the uncertainty as to how and when we are going to create the next wave of jobs, it’s really important to focus on a few key things that we can control, one of which is reinvesting in our infrastructure.

It’s a way to create jobs rather quickly, and it’s a way to be able to ensure that we’ve got additional opportunities to create jobs in the future.

Why is the business community so supportive of the high-speed rail proposal?

For many of the same reasons. Look at what’s happening today on Interstate 4. We’ve got a pothole, a depression, on I-4 that’s shut down three lanes of the four lanes of traffic. That is disrupting commerce, disrupting tourism, disrupting our lives.

So, we’ve got to find an alternative for that for a whole lot of reasons. Think if we were in the middle of a hurricane and we needed to evacuate but we couldn’t because I-4 is down.

This really is a system and there is a plan that the state has to ultimately connect activity centers — Tampa-Orlando, Orlando-Miami, Orlando-Jacksonsville and obviously on down the coast here. It’s not inconceivable to think about connecting Bradenton and Sarasota and further on down. This could be a huge game-changer.

These are stimulus dollars that are going to fund this first wave of high-speed rail activity and those stimulus dollars can either go to California or go to Chicago or go somewhere else, so why shouldn’t at least a portion go here in Tampa Bay and in Florida where the unemployment rates and the foreclosure rates are as high, if not higher, than any other part of the country?

Why does the Tampa Bay region need hgh-speed rail?

Our aspiration as a community and as a region are to be a global competitor, and I don’t know of any globally competitive region that doesn’t have a world-class transportation system. There’s a competitiveness issue here. If we want to take ourselves seriously on the global stage, we need to make sure we’ve got those kinds of investments like high-speed rail.

What are the keys to making high-speed rail successful in Florida, despite its history of failures and non-starts?

Actually, I think that history plays to our advantage right now because we’ve probably looked at this more than any other state or region in the country because of our history. So, we’re in a better position.

This high-speed rail won’t stand alone. It’s not like we’re running it from one vacant field to another vacant field and expecting people to try to figure out how to get to and fro. That is what makes our bid request so viable, that we have a plan and we have projects in place.

What are the challenges to making high-speed rail successful in Florida?

I think the first challenge is securing the funding, and that’s why we’re applying for the stimulus dollars. I think we’re going to be successful and I trust we’re going to be successful.

The next thing we need to do is to be great stewards of the investment the federal government is making in our community. By that, we’ve got to think outside the box. This is not like putting a bus shelter or a bus stop at the corner of Main and Broad. We have to think most creatively about what gets built around the stations, what kind of environment can we create and how do we continue to extend this system so we’ve truly got a region-wide system.

What if Florida’s high-speed rail stimulus bid fails? What then?

We go back and figure out what is the next step. I don’t want to think about that because we’re in the game and we’re going to win this game. But we’re certainly not going to give up. All indications from Washington are that they don’t want this to be a one-time investment effort. There’s interest in Congress to continue to invest in these things and we just keep pressing forward.

What is the Tampa Bay Partnership’s vision of the region’s transportation network in a quarter-century?

Exactly what TBARTA has included in its master plan. I think that is an ideal, wonderful master plan that provides the appropriate guideposts to guide us well into the next couple decades.

How is the Tampa Bay Partnership working to help make that plan a reality?

Everywhere we can, we’re sharing why we believe that is important. We’re prefacing every conversation we have with we wholeheartedly endorse and support the implementation of that master plan.

It appears Hillsborough County will be first. It appears on Nov. 2 there will be a ballot question that the voters of Hillsborough County will be asked if they want to increase the sales tax by 1 percent as a transit investment plan for Hillsborough County. That transit investment plan is consistent with and concurrent with TBARTA’s master plan.

We know that Hillsborough is the first place this occurs, but it won’t be the last place. We’re gearing up to do this not just in Hillsborough County but also to show that the business community is serious about making this happen and is committed to doing it in each one of the communities in the Tampa Bay region.

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