3-county summit looks to get rail on track

Local leaders believe light rail is needed but wonder how to sell a system to a tax-weary public.

Published February 24, 2007

TAMPA - Plans for commuter rail lines in the Tampa Bay area have died over and over again from a lack of money, political will and public support.

Yet the mayors of St. Petersburg, Tampa and Clearwater held an unprecedented meeting Friday with commissioners from Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough counties to brainstorm how they're going to sell a local rail system to a tax-weary public.

Many of the elected officials bluntly said a regional mass transit system is needed to deal with continuing growth and worsening traffic. They think people are ready for it. They pledged to reach across county lines and cooperate to make it happen.

They're a long way from bringing a plan to the public, though. They agreed to merge Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough's separate long-range transportation plans into one design, and to hold another summit in six months to start getting it done.

"Our constituents see traffic congestion as one of the top issues in this community, and it impacts their daily quality of life," said Pinellas County Commission Chairman Ronnie Duncan, who called Friday's meeting at Tampa International Airport.

About 30 local elected officials talked of building rail lines linking downtown St. Petersburg and Tampa with business centers like Gateway and West Shore, and to TIA and the University of South Florida.

Other lines could reach out to Clearwater, Brandon, south Pasco and Plant City, as well as entertainment centers like Raymond James Stadium, Tropicana Field, Busch Gardens and the Pinellas beaches. That would all be combined with an improved bus system.

This plan, which would largely use existing CSX railroad lines, is still much too vague to have a price tag.

Officials want to see what they can do without raising taxes.

In a recent phone survey, 57 percent of Tampa Bay residents said they'd support a tax increase for mass transit, said Don Skelton, regional director for the state Transportation Department.

Mike Brassfield can be reached at 813 226-3435 or brassfield@sptimes.com.