The RNC, Tropical Storm Isaac, and Mass Transit

This past week, articles came out in the Tampa Bay Times , WTSP  and Salon.com regarding Tampa’s “transportation mess.” These journalists appear to agree that Tampa would be a really great city except for its lack of light rail.

As an impending Tropical Storm (possibly soon to be upgraded to Hurricane) Isaac looms out in the Florida Straits, we should take a closer look at these negative articles through a realistic lens.

August 24th was the 20th anniversary of Hurricane Andrew, a Category 5 hurricane that decimated the east coast of Florida and traveled west across the state and into the Gulf of Mexico.

The reality is that the City of Tampa, like all of Florida, from June 1st through November 30th of every year (six months/half a year), faces the possibility of hurricanes emerging at any time. In 2004, Florida was hit with four historically powerful hurricanes within a six-week period.

Charley became a Category 4 Hurricane on August 13th, 2004, with peak winds of 150 mph, resulting in 15 deaths (10 in Florida) and $14 billion in property damage.

Barely three weeks later, Hurricane Frances, a Category 2 with winds at 105 mph, made landfall on the east coast of Florida on September 4th between Ft. Pierce and West Palm Beach. Winds increased as it crossed the state and emerged into the Gulf of Mexico across the Tampa Bay area as a tropical storm late on September 5th. Frances was responsible for 42 deaths (32 in Florida) and nearly $9 billion in property damage.

Hurricane Ivan had reached a Category 5 status over Cuba and, after hitting southern Alabama with winds of 120 mph on September 16th, reorganized in the Gulf of Mexico and headed across southern Florida on September 21st. At its peak, Hurricane Ivan was the size of the state of Texas and produced 119 tornadoes across the southeastern United States. Hurricane Ivan resulted in $13 Billion dollars in damage in the United States alone and killed 25 people, including 14 in Florida. Thirty-two more deaths in the U.S. were directly attributed to Ivan.

Tropical Storm Jeanne formed on September 15th. By the time it made landfall near Stuart, Florida on September 25th, Jeanne was a Category 3 Hurricane. The total number of deaths from this hurricane was 3025, including at least 4 in Florida. The property damage neared $6.8 billion.

Planners for the Republican National Convention are making arrangements in the event that Isaac reaches hurricane status and aims for Tampa. The downtown area is at sea level and faces the possibility of evacuation in the event of flooding.

What would happen if light rail transit was available? This reporter was assured by HART that the trains would be stored at a sheltered location prepared for such an event, built far away and high enough to avoid the rising waters. In essence, this billion-dollar boondoggle would be useless! Remember Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana?

Tampa and its residents face evacuation from its downtown areas and would have to rely on their personal vehicles or buses provided by the city to those who do not have access to an automobile. And we do have some really nice bicycle paths if they would like to use them! But most of them are downtown only.

Six months out of every year, a light rail system could possibly be unavailable due to hurricanes or even high winds or tropical storms, leaving thousands of people stranded and having to rely on the government to aid in their evacuation.

Perhaps one of the primary reasons that businesses and people continue to move into the suburbs in their “nasty” urban sprawl neighborhoods is because of Tampa’s location and threats of flooding in the downtown areas. Businesses cannot close their doors at every threat of high winds and flooding.

The officials at the City of Tampa, the Hillsborough County Board of County Commissioners, HART, and TBARTA insist that to be competitive we must have an expensive light rail system as “Plan A” and that buses are “Plan B.” The reality is that Plan B is the all time, all weather solution to move the most people the most economically and quickly. Why in the world would we spend billions of dollars on Plan A?


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