tampabay.com

Adding rail service 'not for the faint of heart'

The Hillsborough Area Regional Transit board is considering whether to start planning - again - to bring light rail to the Tampa area.

By MIKE BRASSFIELD
Published March 23, 2007


TAMPA - A new generation of leaders at Hillsborough's mass transit agency is taking up an old question: Should they start pushing, one more time, to build a light rail system around Tampa?

On Thursday, the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit board got an education about why plans for light rail have faltered here before and how trying to do it again will be a long and uncertain process.

They'll decide soon whether to proceed.

"We need to stop dancing around the sides of it," said HART board chairman Ricardo Roig. "We should decide whether to do something."

Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio has proposed dusting off old light rail plans. Hillsborough's Metropolitan Planning Organization is developing plans for rail and other mass transit countywide.

HART, which runs the county's buses, would likely operate the rail lines and would seek federal money to pay for half of the expensive startup costs.

Most of the agency's board - city and county elected officials and appointees - weren't involved in previous plans for rail. HART official Ed Crawford gave them a history lesson:

The last plan, shelved in 2003, mapped out a 21-mile, $986-million rail line linking downtown Tampa to the University of South Florida and the West Shore business district, putting 26 stations along existing CSX rail corridors. It also called for more than doubling the number of buses in Hillsborough, partly to get commuters to rail stations.

The plan ran into opposition. Twice in recent years, Hillsborough County commissioners have declined to put a referendum on the ballot for a half-cent sales tax for transit.

Local tax money is absolutely necessary to get federal matching funds, a process that takes years, said William Millar, president of the American Public Transportation Association.

"Expect it to take a long time," Millar told the HART board. "It is not for the faint of heart."

Tampa and Hillsborough would be competing with dozens of cities for federal money, he said. In the last 12 years, the federal government has helped pay for 127 new rail systems or extensions of systems.

"It may be a long and frustrating process," Millar said, "But if you hang with it, it eventually produces things."

Hillsborough Commissioner Mark Sharpe, who sits on HART's board, asked Millar how he would present a plan for light rail to suburban residents who wouldn't see the benefits from it for years and who chiefly want to see their roads improved.

Millar suggested following the strategy that other cities have used to win voter approval for light rail: throw road improvements into the package, as well as dramatically better bus service for areas that aren't initially getting rail lines.

Over the next few months, the HART board will consider having the agency update its last rail proposal - a complicated job that could cost up to a million dollars in itself, Roig said.

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