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Bay area light rail idea back on radar

Rising gas prices and housing costs are making mass transit more of a necessity, advocates say.

Published September 8, 2006

TAMPA — Two high-profile public officials stood in front of Tampa’s aging rail station and envisioned a sprawling regional commuter rail system that would link major population centers and take the pressure off ever-more-crowded highways.

It was June 13, 1991. The public officials were state Rep. Jim Hargrett, D-Tampa, and Hillsborough County Commissioner Ed Turanchik.

Nothing came of the idea.

Since then, commuter rail for Tampa Bay has resurfaced periodically, only to sink again without ceremony. But when Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio declared Thursday that the time is now, she got a surprisingly strong positive initial response.

What has changed in the last 15 years?

“You have a convergence of four major ingredients,” Turanchik said Friday. “There are several hundred thousand more people living in the region, road congestion is unspeakable and getting worse, $3 gasoline and high housing costs. People are sick of it. They want choices.”

Housing costs have become a big problem , said Dewey Mitchell, chairman of the Tampa Bay Partnership.

“People are having to commute longer and longer distances to find affordable housing, which only means they have to spend that much more on gas,” Mitchell said.

Meanwhile, asphalt and concrete prices are soaring, burying plans for new highways and delaying completion of projects already under way.

Still, there are obstacles standing between Tampa Bay and a commuter rail reality: politics and money.

The Florida Department of Transportation has begun to define the Tampa Bay region as Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco, Hernando, Citrus, Polk, Sumter, Manatee and Sarasota counties. The area encompasses 38 distinct city and county governments and metropolitan planning organization that must set aside their parochial interests and cooperate.

It’s happened before. The West Coast Regional Water Supply Authority — a litigious, often vindictive amalgam of Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties, plus St. Petersburg, Tampa and New Port Richey — found common ground and became Tampa Bay Water in 1998.

But it was an often-ugly process that could have been derailed by the defection of any one of the six participants. Dealing with 38 could be quite a different ball game.

Louis Miller, executive director of the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority, said the solution might be to start smaller.

“I think the key to making it work is to start with a core area, such as Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco and Hernando counties and then expand,” Miller said. “You don’t try to bite it all off at once.”

Miller is such a strong advocate of light rail that he got his board on Thursday to include in next year’s budget nearly $431,000 to study where to put it at the airport.

One airport board member who voted for that study was Tampa developer Al Austin, also chairman of the Tampa Chamber of Commerce’s growth management task force. It has in the past opposed light rail. Austin now calls it a necessity.

Another signal that the business community’s attitude has shifted is the aggressive attempt of the business-driven Tampa Bay Partnership to create a regional transportation authority that would develop a range of public transportation initiatives, including rail.

“Mayor Iorio is right on target in advocating light rail, right in line with the concept of a regional transportation authority,” Mitchell said.

Since the light rail system as Iorio envisions it would start in Hillsborough County, one question is her rocky relationship with the Hillsborough County Commission and the commission’s reluctance to raise taxes. Yet if the region is to make the local financial commitment necessary to gain access to federal matching funds, it could require increases in some or all impact fees, sales taxes, gas taxes and property taxes.

“That’s precisely why a regional authority is required,” said Stuart Rogel, president and chief executive officer of the Tampa Bay Partnership. “You don’t want to pit one entity against another. You need a mechanism to put together the plan and take it back to all the interested parties.”

Turanchik said he thought there had been such a swing in public mood that the commission’s historical positions wouldn’t be a problem.

“I don’t think this is about changing the minds and hearts of the current commissioners,” he said. “They will either get beyond their myopic, head-in-the-sand thinking, or they will be thrown out of office.”

Whatever the solution, it will have to be an alternative to more highways where construction has fallen victim to rising prices.

The Florida Department of Transportation’s massive reconstruction of Interstate 275 in Hillsborough budgeted $250-million for the highway segment between the Howard Frankland Bridge and the Hillsborough River. The low bid came in at $356-million, based on escalating asphalt and concrete costs. All bids were rejected, and the project pulled off the table.

“We’re working on trying to repackage the project,” said spokeswoman Marian Scorza. When asked how long the delay might be, she replied, “I have no idea.”

[Last modified September 8, 2006, 22:41:20]

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