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Airport board takes light rail for a virtual ride

A video animation showing a possible future light rail system wows the airport board.

By STEVE HUETTEL, Times Staff Writer
Published November 2, 2007

A detailed view of how a transit station of a proposed regional light rail system might look at Tampa International Airport.
[Special to the Times]

[Special to the Times]
A detailed view of how a transit station on a proposed regional light rail system might look at Tampa International Airport.

The six-car electric train zips past cars on the parkway into Tampa International Airport, climbs to a passenger platform connected to the south terminal, stops and then dips under a jet taxiway.

A video animation of the 3.5-mile light-rail trip wowed the crowd at a meeting of the airport's governing board Thursday. Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio urged people to look at the cost -- $190-million to $235-million -- alongside hundreds of millions going into improving the area's interstate highways.

"In the long run, this is cheaper," said Iorio, a leading advocate for developing a regional passenger rail network in the Tampa Bay area. "This is congestion-proof."

The airport route would be part of an initial rail network connecting downtown Tampa with downtown St. Petersburg, Iorio said. The mayor last month was part of a Tampa chamber group that toured the new light rail system in Charlotte, N.C.

Any decision to build the Tampa Bay system is years away. First, state Department of Transportation planners must complete a two-year study and lay out detailed transit options to a new bay area regional transportation authority by mid 2009.

DOT will answer the most basic questions, building on about 20 transit plans written and put on the shelf over two decades or more, said Bob Clifford, intermodal transportation chief for the agency's Tampa Bay area office.

What type of transit works best? Where should it go? How much does it cost and where does the money come from?

Some Hillsborough and Pinellas officials have floated the idea of asking voters to approve a new 1-cent or half-cent sales tax to fund a transit system in 2010. "No other issue has more to do with the day-to-day quality of life in this region," Iorio said.

The Hillsborough County Aviation Authority and the DOT jointly funded the $360,000 airport study by engineering consultants PB Americas, which mapped a route that would connect with a regional rail system on Spruce Street and run beside the George J. Bean Parkway.

Trains would ride an elevated track up to a 300-foot-long platform, equipped with ticketing machines and flight monitors at the current south terminal.

The track would go over people-movers connecting the terminal to "airside" buildings, drop to ground level beneath taxiway bridges and rise again to a platform at the north terminal, set for phased openings starting in 2015. Trains would cross Hillsborough Avenue at ground level at the airport's north boundary.

The aviation authority won't pay for the airport train route, said executive director Louis Miller. But the agency would donate right of way, the value of which could serve as a local match for federal funds to build the system, he said.

The study will keep officials from making any changes that might interfere with light rail coming through the airport at a later date. And the gee-whiz video gives boosters ammunition to show that transit here isn't just pie in the sky, Iorio said.

"Unless you can show it, it's not believable," she said.

Steve Huettel can be reached at or (813) 226-3384.

[Last modified November 1, 2007, 23:07:32]

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