Calls for area officials to collectively address Tampa Bay’s congested roadways and limited transportation options have reached a crescendo, and a Pinellas County organization recently unveiled a draft framework.
Forward Pinellas oversees the county’s transportation and land use planning. It is also exploring a regional Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) for the Tampa Bay area, with a potential July 2027 launch.
A PowerPoint presentation notes the “long-standing and persistent” focus on merging Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas Counties’ separate MPOs. Whit Blanton, executive director of Forward Pinellas, drafted a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to achieve that goal and explained the process to its board of local leaders at an April 12 meeting.
“What I wanted to do is get on paper some of the expectations and clarify some of the steps and requirements of establishing an MPO,” Blanton said. “And really, just signaling to … our state representatives, the governor and whoever else may be interested, that we are working on this solution ourselves, and we hope to be able to resolve it without intervention from Tallahassee.
“That would be ideal.”
St. Petersburg City Councilmember Gina Driscoll chairs the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA) and represents the agency on the Forward Pinellas board. She expressed her full support of exploring the initiative Thursday and noted that residents and visitors frequently travel between counties for jobs, housing and recreation.
She added that Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco’s combined features have led to Tampa Bay becoming one of the nation’s fastest-growing regions.
“By working together through a regional MPO, we can take a forward-thinking, more sophisticated view of the Tampa Bay area and develop smart strategies that will position the region for success as we continue to grow,” Driscoll said. “That benefits everyone, including those who live, work and play in St. Petersburg.”
The draft MOU stems from a March 24 Suncoast Transportation Planning Alliance (SCTPA) meeting. The organization brings together representatives from Tampa Bay’s local MPOs, including advisors from the Florida Department of Transportation, the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council, PSTA and Hillsborough Area Regional Transit (HART).
Blanton explained that the MOU was updated and revised to reflect mostly minor suggestions offered at the SCTPA meeting. He said there was general – but not unanimous – support, with some Hillsborough and Tampa representatives voicing opposition.
He also expressed the importance of highlighting unique characteristics that have previously stalled talks of creating a regional planning organization for decades. Those include varying diversity, populations, land use patterns and the number of municipalities compared to rural areas.
“The reality is, those are all issues that every MPO faces, no matter where they are,” Blanton added. “Let’s not lose some of the things that we’ve done well, that seems to be working well, and see if that can be integrated into this new structure.”
He noted the increased “sense of urgency” among elected officials and various stakeholders to create a singular entity. However, Blanton said the establishment process is “highly scrutinized” and “very transparent” and would take three to four years to complete.
That is due to state and federal documentation requirements and statutory procedures needed to receive funding. Hillsborough and Pasco officials are now discussing the draft MOU with city and county leaders.
Blanton said he is scheduling meetings with local government partners, chambers of commerce and “anybody who has an interest in transportation, both local and regional.” The goal is to conclude those by the fall, and he would present the draft with any additional revisions for Forward Pinellas’ adoption.
Blanton said his staff is creating a draft budget for the regional MPO, and his Hillsborough counterparts are creating an apportionment plan based on new census data. He noted that state statute would limit its board to 25 members.
“I’m sure both of those things will generate a lot of discussion,” Blanton conceded.
He said merging the area’s MPOs would help define Tampa Bay’s transportation agenda and allow it to better compete for funding with other regions. He called the latter aspect “a big one.”
Blanton also relayed that Orlando “has been punching above its weight for a number of years” due to its MPO. Tampa Bay’s organization would become the state’s largest.
He said it would also increase state and congressional representation and “build trust and collaboration across county lines. I think it would be an opportunity to really sell the assets in the Tampa Bay area.”
However, Blanton admitted there is a risk that smaller communities could lose influence, something Tarpon Springs officials have already bemoaned. Planning emphasis could also shift to expansive regional projects instead of addressing community safety, access and mobility needs.
Blanton believes MPO representatives could create a model that still prioritizes those initiatives.
“It doesn’t necessarily guarantee that we’re going to try and impose a Pasco highway solution on downtown Tampa or downtown St. Petersburg,” he said. “I just don’t think that’s logical.”
There is also the matter of regional acceptance. Federal law dictates that governing boards representing 75% of the area’s population – and the largest city, Tampa – must agree to dissolve individual MPOs and create a new entity.
Commissioner Dave Eggers noted Pinellas and Pasco officials’ willingness to explore a merger. “I’m not sure that Hillsborough County was excited about it,” he added.
He relayed that Tampa representatives took a “parochial” tone during the March meeting. While Eggers expressed his fondness for the city, he said, “You would think that nothing else existed in the region.”
“Our businesses don’t care about boundaries,” Eggers said. “Our colleges and universities don’t care about boundaries. This is a really good time to be looking at this. The state wants that, but I think it’s good for us to look at it as well.”