Yvette C. Hammett | Tribune Staff
During afternoon rush hour, 53 percent of commuters in the Tampa metro area are mired in gridlock. In the mornings, 34 percent sit in traffic. This region ranks 11th in the nation for congestion, according to the 2014 TomTom Traffic Index released Tuesday.
Using commuter information gleaned from car and truck GPS systems and smart phone apps, TomTom, a leading manufacturer of car navigation systems, gathers data for various times of the 24-hour period to determine when people are stuck in traffic and for how long. Using those parameters, the index rates Tampa 84th on the planet for congestion. Miami is the only Florida metro area ranked higher for congestion, coming in at 7th.
The study area for Tampa runs from Interstate 75 on the east to the Gulf of Mexico on the west. The annual Traffic Index prepared by Amsterdam-based TomTom International BV, measures the impact traffic congestion has on over 200 cities around the world, helping drivers, businesses and governments better manage the gridlock.
The TomTom study reveals that evening rush hour is the worst time of the day to travel on every road network worldwide. Tampa is no exception. If a commuter takes 30 minutes to get to work in the morning here, it will likely take at least 45 minutes to get back home during peak hours. The TomTom ranking for the Tampa metro area – the 18th largest metropolitan statistical area in the nation, based on 2014 population data – is no surprise to local officials struggling to tackle the shortfalls of the Hillsborough County transportation system.
“Congestion costs us time, money and quality of life,” said Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn. “And when corporations look to the Tampa Bay area as a potential site for relocation, they go through an extensive metrics system of the strengths and weaknesses of a community from schools to tax structure, to quality of life. Tampa always falls short in an otherwise pretty competitive report card in the area of transportation.
“We can stick our head in the sand and pretend it is going to fix itself, magically. It’s not,” Buckhorn said. “Transportation hasn’t been funded adequately for decades and it has caught up to us.”
The Transportation Policy Leadership Group, made up of all seven Hillsborough County Commissioners and the mayors of Tampa, Plant City and Temple Terrace, is marketing a plan to maintain and expand roadways and bridges, build a more robust county bus system that could include express bus service and maybe even add light rail, including an upgraded downtown streetcar system.
To build a case for approval, the PLG is holding a series of open meetings throughout the county called GO Hillsborough, to present the proposal. The group is considering placing a referendum on the ballot in 2016 for a penny sales tax increase to fund the plan. The sales tax increase would raise about $6 billion over 30 years. Acknowledging that a new penny sales tax is no slam dunk, the county’s Metropolitan Planning Organization, nevertheless, approved its 20-year long-range transportation plan in November that included an aggressive upgrade plan. But it noted that funding is still an unresolved matter.
Trust is a huge issue in determining the fate of future transportation here, said community activist Terry Flott, who lives in Seffner and often travels downtown through rush-hour traffic to get to government meetings. “A lot of people are openly supporting the plan, but I don’t think people trust the government enough at this point to say what they will do,” when they go to the polls, Flott said. “It’s all going to boil down to a vote of trust,” she said, “but people don’t trust government to do the right thing, to have a plan and stick to it.”
The Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce hasn’t committed to the PLG plan, but it is concerned with finding the best transportation alternatives for area businesses and their employees, said Tampa architect Mickey Jacob, who co-chairs the chamber’s transportation council and also sits on the board for the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority. “We are still looking at options and doing our research,” Jacob said. “The GO Hillsborough public presentations are just a small representative group, especially when you consider the business community. We need to make sure we are getting good information to disseminate to our members.”
Doing nothing is not an option, Buckhorn said. “We can address the trust issue by laying out how the money is going to be spent, where it is going to be spent and the conditions upon which it will be spent. People need to recognize we’re all in this together. Even if you aren’t getting the sidewalk fixed in front of your house, you are getting the intersection a mile away fixed and that is going to impact your life.”
Meanwhile, TomTom Senior Traffic Expert Nick Cohn said there are a few things commuters can do to ease the burden of congestion and snatch back some of that lost time. “There is something I see in your network that we see in a lot of American cities,” Cohn said. “It looks like people use the same main routes, not detouring on to parallel arterial roads to save travel time. One of the reasons we publish this report is to encourage drivers to think about their daily trips and save some of that lost time.” One option is to use real-time traffic information available with some GPS systems. Commuters can also consider traveling at off-peak times using a flexible work schedule. He said that not only makes their commute better, but also the drive for those who have to hit the road during peak hours.
A good deal of the afternoon congestion in this area occurs in Brandon on State Road 60 and Bloomingdale Avenue, with hundreds traveling east, heading home from jobs in Tampa. Cohn said most of those areas are not included in the traffic index this year, but may be in future years. “I can see they have big delays on a daily basis. One of the things we noticed in Tampa is that the worst areas aren’t just the freeways,” Cohn said. “It’s arterials that are really challenged, to put it politely,” on roads like Hillsborough Avenue in Tampa and East Bay Drive in Clearwater.
It could always be worse, he said. “Everyone in Tampa should be happy they are in Tampa and not in Moscow or Mexico City, but that’s not much of a comfort.” Los Angeles is the only American city to make the traffic index top 10 for congestion worldwide, Cohn said. Istanbul, Mexico City and Rio de Janeiro rank first through third for congestion globally. In the U.S., Los Angeles ranks first with the worst congestion, followed by San Francisco and Honolulu.