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Regional light rail idea is revived

Officials in the Tampa Bay area applaud the resuscitation of the shelved proposal.

By JANET ZINK
Published September 8, 2006


TAMPA - Mayor Pam Iorio says light rail is a key to the area's transportation needs.

Road construction has become cost prohibitive, she says. New highways and toll roads lead to more suburban sprawl. And a recently proposed beltway that would cut through largely undeveloped lands "ignores smart growth principles," she said.

With that in mind, Iorio on Thursday proposed to dust off two mothballed light rail plans written in 1993 and 2002. She said she envisions lines connecting Pinellas, Hillsborough, Polk, Pasco and Manatee counties.

"Our future is in mass transit," she said.

Iorio's announcement lends her considerable political clout to the chorus of high-powered voices from elected officials to business leaders who have been saying it's time to bring better mass transit to the region.

Light rail has traditionally been a tough sell in the Tampa Bay area. But rapid growth and increasingly clogged roads appear to have changed some minds in the past few years.

"With the growth of this area and the amount of traffic that we're going to incur over the net 10 years, we have to find alternative ways to get people from point A to point B," said Al Austin, a Tampa developer and chair of the Tampa Chamber of Commerce's growth management task force, which has in the past opposed light rail

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker applauded Iorio for coming forward with the idea, which includes plans for a line that extends from downtown Tampa to Tampa International Airport and downtown St. Petersburg.

"Pam and I have had a number of discussions about methods to connect the two downtowns along with connections to the two airports, the St. Pete gateway and Tampa," Baker said.

A light rail system could be expensive and take a long time to complete, Baker said.

Other potentially less costly options include a similar system that uses rapid buses, instead of rail lines, he said.

"The good news is both sides of the bay are looking at ways to provide connectivity between the communities," Baker said.

Hillsborough's most recent rail plan called for a 20-mile line linking downtown Tampa to the University of South Florida and West Shore Business District. That system would have cost $985-million to build over 20 years, with annual operating expenses of $22-million. It was shelved in 2003.

Ioiro said she wants to wants to revisit that concept, as well as the idea of expanding along existing CSX rail lines into neighboring counties.

A rail plan and local and local financial commitment would open the door to state and federal money, which is how Orlando is funding a planned commuter rail system, Ioiro said.

State Sen. Mike Fasano, who represents suburban areas in Citrus, Hernando, Pasco and Pinellas counties, is part of a group working on legislation to create a regional authority to finance and build multi-county transportation projects.

He said Iorio's proposal would be a "perfect match" for the agency.

"Many of us who live outside of Tampa and Hillsborough County go there a lot. I would very much like to be able to find a great way to head from Pasco County south through Hillsborough County when I go to the Lightning games," he said.

Rep. Bill Galvano of Bradenton, another key player in the move to establish a regional authority, said he was also enthusiastic, but more cautious.

"The concept of expanding rail fits squarely within the objectives of the regional transportation authority," he said.

"We have been pitching it as a multimodal authority from the beginning. The specific plan of where the rail would go will have to be left to the authority."

St. Petersburg City Council member Bill Foster said he thinks light rail transportation is inevitable for the region.

"I'd like to see it in my lifetime," he said. "I'm glad she's dusting off the plans."

Tampa City Council member Shawn Harrison, who chairs Hillsborough's Metropolitan Planning Organization, said that group in May voted to conduct a complete review of all mass transit options for the county, including rail.

"We're on it," he said.

Harrison said he also recently talked to a representative of CSX about a commuter rail line from the south of Gandy Boulevard area to downtown Tampa.

CSX is already working with local, state and federal officials to plan a commuter rail around Orlando.

"He told me that they were focused on Orlando right now and it would take about six months to pull that off. If they can, they will look at other areas, including Tampa," Harrison said.

But Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe urged caution in going ahead with the plan for a light rail system.

Some type of mass transit, possibly rail, is clearly one component of solving the region's transportation woes, he said.

But it shouldn't be the top priority, he said.

Sharpe said he stands by plans to build a beltway around the Tampa Bay area, saying that limiting exits would keep suburban sprawl in check.

"I've been calling all along for making sure we do our roads first," he said.

"The problem with the transit system is by itself it will move such a small number of people that you will still have congestion problems. It's got to be done in conjunction with other things."

Janet Zink can be reached at jzink@sptimes.com or 813 226-3401.

[Last modified September 8, 2006, 02:11:13]


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