Transport. The transport front is a mixed bag (as usual), with 2021 being a big moment to move forward or backward. On the plus side, officials hope to open the Selmon Extension this summer, which will connect Gandy Bridge to the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway and the Dale Mabry Highway, making commuting across the bay easier for thousands. Beach vacationers, residents, cyclists and locals can also look forward to the planned opening of the new Bayway Bridge between Isla Del Sol and Tierra Verde in Pinellas this summer. But other roadblocks remain. Hillsborough’s transportation surcharge is still being bottled in court, stifling local funding for large road and transit projects. And the state could postpone improvements to the West Shore Interchange on Interstate 275 and guarantee a new bottleneck on the Tampa side of the Howard Frankland Bridge. We can only hope for encouraging news by spring.
Vaccine rollout. The first dose of the coronavirus vaccine was given in the Tampa Bay area on December 14, and the effort is expected to increase across the Sunshine State in the coming weeks. Healthcare workers and elderly residents of retirement homes were among the first, reflecting the need to vaccinate these high-risk populations as soon as possible. The beginnings of the rollout have been frustratingly slow, with communication and decision-making disruptions that have contributed to a very low number of vaccinations. The states and local health departments also lack the resources to effectively distribute the vaccines. Republican Governor Ron DeSantis must forge a close relationship with the new Biden administration as it takes over the federal response. He must also keep Floridians updated on when vaccines will be available and insist that Floridians adhere to other safety recommendations, from wearing masks to social distancing until the pandemic is under control.
Police reform. The protests against police violence that erupted across the country last summer subsided in the fall and were partly overtaken by the growing coronavirus pandemic and the record-breaking presidential election in November. Will the unfinished business of the Black Lives Matter movement regain local attention, and if so, to what extent and in what form? The protests have opened up, creating new channels of communication between activists and law enforcement agencies across the Tampa Bay area. Authorities are looking for new ways to expose implicit racial prejudice in the criminal justice system, and protesters have expanded their reach and got involved in voter registration and neighborhood improvement projects. Whether this will lead to more than one more troubled truce before the next tragedy remains to be seen. But it is civic advancement that the entire Tampa Bay region can build on.
Hillsborough Schools. What is the financial outlook for the Hillsborough County School District? Other area leaders raise concern after the district announced that it would post a negative balance on its reserves in late May. Superintendent Addison Davis has said for months that the district needs to cut spending – an argument that is repeated by outside advisors. The question now is how spending can be reduced in a meaningful and orderly manner without affecting the core offerings of the country’s seventh largest school district. Hillsborough voters approved a sales tax to pay for school repairs and other capital costs in 2018, and Davis said in December he would propose a local property tax as one of several ideas to help stabilize the budget. Will the school board agree? Will proponents of a new property tax respond with an advocacy campaign like they did in 2018? The financial picture and a bailout plan should come out more fully this year.
Local elections in St. Petersburg. Who will replace St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, who is banned from running again due to tenure restrictions? Former Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch said he intended to submit candidacy papers after the holidays. St Petersburg City Council member Darden Rice is also awaiting candidacy, and a number of well-known figures, from former MP Wengay Newton to businessman and activist Deveron Gibbons, are examining their options. The race could attract double-digit numbers of candidates, and the political maneuver could shape the debate on a variety of high-level issues, from police reform and diversity to relationships with the Tampa Bay Rays. Three city council races are also on the ballot. Will St. Petersburg improve its progressive image, further develop its small and independent businesses and emerge as a greater force on the regional stage? Or will this choice move the city in a different direction? Some of the answers should be visible in elementary school on August 24th.
Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The editorial board includes Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, editorials editor Graham Brink, and editors Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news