Planners ask: Has light rail's time come?
By LISA GREENE, Times Staff Writer
You're stuck in yet another traffic jam. So go ahead, close your eyes. Imagine the future.
Instead of sitting among the exhaust fumes and honking horns, you're zipping along on a clean, quiet monorail. You can catch up on some work or even read the newspaper along the way.
This is the future that Pinellas County leaders are looking at right now.
It sounds great.
But will it work?
Light rail, such as monorails or people movers, is hailed by advocates not only as a solution for traffic congestion, but also as a way to shape urban development and to cut air pollution.
But opponents say it costs far too much, attracts too few riders, and for many cities is just a train-lover's pipe dream.
Both sides are likely to get a full airing in the coming months, as Pinellas County prepares to ask the federal government for hundreds of millions of dollars to build such a system.
Building a rail system in Pinellas wouldn't come cheap. Ballpark estimates say it could cost more than $1-billion to run rail lines from Clearwater Beach east to the St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport, then south to St. Petersburg.
Even if federal grants paid half that cost, Pinellas could face a $500-million tab. The most likely option to pay such a sum: a penny sales tax for transit that would have to be approved by voters.
Pinellas' transportation planning board has used a $2.4-million grant to hire a Tampa consultant to help decide whether rail is worth it for Pinellas.
The firm, Grimail Crawford Inc., has completed some reports, including a proposed route. The most crucial data -- estimates on how much it would cost and how many people would ride -- is supposed to be complete soon.
The county has yet to decide on a type of rail system. It could be an elevated monorail, similar to those in Disney World or Seattle. A smaller version would be a people mover, like the trains at Tampa International Airport. Other cities, including Dallas, Denver, and Portland, Ore., have light rail that runs on a train track, but uses electricity from an overhead line.
Depending on the system, cost could range anywhere from $30-million to $80-million a mile, Smith said. If the cost were $50-million a mile, it would cost $1.5-billion to run the complete proposed route, about 30 miles from St. Petersburg through Clearwater. That route still is tentative, and the county's current map shows parallel lines and squares at some places, where planners still aren't sure which route to pick.
Transportation officials plan to hold a series of public workshops around the county next month to hear what residents think about the idea. Elected officials would be asked to make other decisions, including who would be in charge of a rail system, before submitting a lengthy report to the Federal Transit Administration this summer.
Some 200 cities also are looking at federal rail dollars, said Pinellas consultant Mike Crawford.
County officials have toyed with rail from time to time for at least 30 years. But this is a new level of involvement, said Brian Smith, county planning director.
"This would be the first really serious proposal," Smith said.
St. Petersburg City Council member Jay Lasita is among those who want to turn rail into a reality "if we can find a way to make it economically feasible." Lasita, who sits on the planning board committee studying rail, knows that rail costs a lot. But so does building new highways, he pointed out.
"If we can get it out there (to the public) that this can be cost-effective compared to building a mile of concrete, then it has a chance," Lasita said.
Lasita knows too well that Pinellas is the state's most densely populated county, and that its residents routinely complain about congestion. He makes the 45-minute drive from downtown St. Petersburg's City Hall to downtown Clearwater's County Courthouse almost weekly.
"I can drive to the USF Tampa campus in the same amount of time," he said. "If you can show me I can get there quicker, or in the same amount of time with less aggravation (on rail), I can see myself doing it in a heartbeat."
What's more, Lasita and Smith say, Pinellas can't build its way out of congestion with new roads. Smith guessed a major new interstate in Pinellas would cost more than $10-billion, and both said it would be politically impossible. Smith pointed to the cost of improving U.S. 19: $350-million over the next five years to build four flyovers and do other road work.
But in other ways, Pinellas is an unlikely candidate for rail. Experts say rail works best in older cities, such as Washington, D.C. or Boston, where there's a central business district. Pinellas may be dense, but it doesn't have just one downtown. Workers travel to downtown St. Petersburg, but also to Clearwater, the Gateway area and Tampa.
"You don't have that concentration of people going from the suburbs to one place," said Gary Brosch, chairman of the National Center for Transit Research at the University of South Florida. "That makes it a much tougher challenge to make rail work."
Pinellas also has traditionally been fiscally conservative.
"The biggest challenge is to try to convince voters to put a significant tax on themselves to do that," Brosch said.
County Administrator Steve Spratt wants Pinellas to make a decision quickly whether to pursue rail.
"We've been studying that for many years," he said. "We've got to put it forward or develop alternate strategies."
Spratt wants to see ridership numbers, forecasts for how Pinellas traffic would be affected by rail, and a decision on what county agency would be in charge.
"We also need to make a better case to the public about why this is important," he said.
If the state brings its planned high-speed rail line across the bay to Pinellas, that likely would increase the number of riders on a county light rail line. A recent state study cast doubt on whether Pinellas would have enough riders to merit extending the high-speed rail. But each system would boost riders on the other, Brosch said.
Despite the years of study, rail hasn't yet become a political hot potato in Pinellas. Smith thinks that's because the study has been slow and cautious.
"We've tried to approach it in a way that we keep everybody at the table," he said.
But as the discussion becomes more public, that could change. Across the bay, rail was the most controversial issue for a citizens' group studying transportation a few years ago that ultimately decided against it.
Brosch thinks rail raises tempers because both sides view it in symbolic terms -- either the ultimate government boondoggle or a pathway to a utopian community.
"You don't see too many people building highways under their Christmas trees," Brosch said. "With trains, there's some real symbolism there."
-- Lisa Greene can be reached at (727) 445-4162 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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