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Light rail movement gets federal approval to proceed

Although none of the millions necessary have been raised, supporters say it is a step in the right direction.

By BILL VARIAN, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 18, 2003

TAMPA -- A dozen years ago, a federal agency gave approval for the renovations of the Interstate 275 and Interstate 4 junction only now getting started.

On Monday, the Federal Transit Administration provided similar approval to a 20-mile light rail system that would connect downtown Tampa with Hyde Park, the Westshore Business District and New Tampa.

Approval of the Final Environmental Impact Statement clears the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority to buy right of way, seek permits, design and build the rail system.

Now all HARTline has to do is find the $985-million it estimates the system will cost to build. And that will be no small task for the cash-strapped agency best known for running the county's bus system and trolley.

"Just because you get the approval doesn't mean it's going to happen or that it's going to happen right away," said Ed Crawford, a spokesman for HARTline. "It means six years worth of study required to get through the federal process is done."

However, local officials connected to that study, which involved developing a workable corridor with the input of citizens in dozens of community meetings, say the approval provides the first step in creating a new means of transportation in Tampa.

"This is historic," said Hillsborough Commissioner Jan Platt, who is chairwoman of the HARTline board of directors. "What's important about this approval is that it recognizes that we took a practical approach to light rail -- that it's doable."

HARTline currently has no money set aside for building a light rail system. However, last year it helped win approval of legislation that would enable charter counties, such as Hillsborough, to ask voters for approval of up to an additional penny in sales taxes, primarily for transit.

But Hillsborough commissioners would have to approve a referendum and thus far have expressed unwillingness to do so. In fact, commissioners are backing legislation that would give them broader discretion on how the money would be spent.

HARTline would like to be able to use a portion of the penny tax to help pay for light rail by matching the local money with federal dollars they believe would be available. At the same time, they are also looking for other sources of money, including having the state expand its transportation funding to transit.

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