It was years in the making, and some said at least several years too long. But last spring, Pasco County Public Transportation — which manages the mass transit system in the county — finally connected Zephyrhills and New Port Richey with a bus.
The trip takes less than two hours, and riders can take advantage of it simply with a $3.75 day pass.
But if Pasco wants to find a way to lead the suburban growth of the greater Tampa Bay area, it’s going to have to create a network much stronger than that, according to the Urban Land Institute.
“There is very little transit here in the county, as you all know,” said Bill Lawrence, managing director with T.R. Advisors in Boston, who joined the independent growth and development analytical group in a presentation to the county late last year. Yet, while some of that blame falls to county officials, it is part of a much broader problem.
“The transportation planning function in the region really is in disarray,” Lawrence said. “The (high-speed) train to Tampa has been defunded, and the transit initiative in Hillsborough has not been passed.”
The number of cars traveling Pasco roads is growing faster than the roads can be upgraded, Lawrence said. There already are daily traffic bottlenecks in areas like Land O’ Lakes Boulevard and State Road 54, as well as the interchanges around Interstate 75 and the Suncoast Parkway.
While adding lanes will help accommodate the traffic in a county that has grown 143 percent in the last 30 years — the key is an expanded mass transit system, which means changes must come to PCPT.
The system currently runs 10 routes, including the cross-county route along the State Road 54 corridor, compared to the nearly 50 routes operated by its southern neighbor, Hillsborough County.
But how would such expansions be paid for, especially with Pasco County facing a $14 billion shortfall in the current planning cycle?
Lawrence suggested that 5 percent of all transportation funding be earmarked to advancing public transit in the county.
“Most of this would be picked up by local development fees, and there is in place this mobility fee that is supposed to address some of that,” Lawrence said. “I am not sure how that would work, or how much money it would actually raise, although it provides incentives to offset land uses that are desirable, like transit-oriented development, which is a good thing.”
Mobility fees may have some problems getting traction in terms of additional revenue since county officials have waived or reduced such fees in the past to help attract new development to the county.
While jobs are growing in Pasco County by more than 3,000 per year, government officials can’t forget that many Pasco residents — around half by Lawrence’s projections — still travel into Hillsborough and Pinellas counties each day to work. Addressing this need could come through bus rapid transit, something that is now being tried in Hillsborough County, and could be expanded at some point into Pasco.
Transit will always remain a subsidized offering of the county, but the importance lies not just in moving the workforce around, but also in making Pasco an attractive place for business, Lawrence said. Transportation is one of the key issues businesses look at when trying to find business hubs for its operations, and many grants and other funding also hinge on the diversity and effectiveness of transportation options in an area.