Some people might wonder how a transportation expert from Boston can coordinate environmental protection efforts as executive director of the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council and its Agency on Bay Management.
But Sean Sullivan, who officially joined the TBRPC in January, has taken a giant plunge – and it’s not all new to him. “My parents retired to St. Pete in the 1990s and we’ve been vacationing here ever since,” he said. “We have a photo of our daughters taken on Madeira Beach when they were 4 and 6 – then took another one last winter when they were 24 and 26.”
Sullivan is very aware of the accomplishments that have been achieved in Tampa Bay. “I’m impressed with the environmental stewardship and admire the people of the region for their efforts and teamwork in improving water quality and bringing back the seagrass beds,” he said. “I have learned a lot fast and I’m really looking forward to learning more,” he said.
As the only urban estuary in the world where water quality has improved over the past 50 years, Tampa Bay holds an enviable spot in the environmental community. “Working together, the scientists and volunteers here have proven that you can bring an estuary back from the brink,” Sullivan said.
Moving forward (pun intended), transportation is a key element in any plan to improve water quality in the bay. Atmospheric deposition of nitrogen – which represents up to 60% of that key contaminant entering Tampa Bay – is directly linked to automobile traffic. “There’s no doubt that traffic is a significant challenge for the Tampa Bay region from a number of perspectives,” he said.
And while the region is currently “attaining” air quality standards, it’s going to be more and more difficult to meet those limits in the future without additional efforts to address the problems, he adds.
Across the state, environmental issues have become a key topic in transportation planning, including initiatives like the Florida Department of Transportation’s Future Corridors which is taking a regional approach to transportation planning incorporating local planning efforts like the One Bay Livable Communities envisioning exercise (learn more).
Sullivan was part of the task force that recently finalized recommendations for connecting Tampa Bay with Central Florida and Jacksonville. “The goal here is to enhance the efficiency of our transportation network without sacrificing environmental quality,” he said. “It’s really a very innovative effort from a national perspective.”
Even now, before the significant population increases that have been predicted actually happen, I-75 north to Ocala and then Jacksonville totally shuts down about once every seven days due to traffic accidents. “We can’t count on a transportation network that just closes up that often,” he says.
Sullivan strongly supported the task force’s final decision to expand the capacity of I-75 rather than create a separate corridor that would have cut through environmentally sensitive lands and extended new development to rural areas “It was clearly the right thing to do,” he said.
Sullivan’s background also includes stormwater – another leading cause of pollution in Tampa Bay – as an environmental protection specialist covering six states for the Federal Transit Administration.
Local governments’ focus on tightening state regulations to improve water quality also is critical, he adds. Organizations like the Environmental Protection Commission of Hillsborough County and initiatives such as Pinellas County’s new stormwater regulations show the region’s commitment to improving water quality and ecosystems within their boundaries.
On a different tack, Sullivan also is working to expand the role of the regional planning council and the Agency on Bay Management, meeting with local governments to explain the value that they can bring to their residents. “We currently have 26 member governments, but we need to reach out to others,” he said. “I’m sitting down with representatives of every existing member government along with outreach to other governments. The TBRPC offers expertise in planning, economic development, environmental stewardship, transportation, evacuation planning and energy management – including alternative energy – that brings value to our members.”