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Chamber group lobbies for rail

The future of the growing bay area, from Pasco to St. Petersburg and Tampa, must include rail, supporters say.

By JAMES THORNER

© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 21, 2001


Rejected in the 1970s, abandoned as wasteful in the 1990s, the idea of building a light-rail system to serve Pasco County commuters has resurfaced.

No one proposes splurging on a mass transit system that could cost hundreds of millions of dollars. The sole goal at this point is to include commuter rail on Pasco's long-range transportation plan through 2025.

As Pinellas County toys again with the concept of a Clearwater-to-St. Petersburg elevated or ground-level rail system, Pasco business leaders don't want to be left out.

"The way the county is growing and what's happening with rail in adjacent counties, it's important Pasco not be off the radar," said Rich Balkcom, a member of the Pasco Forum, made up of representatives of the county's five chambers of commerce.

Lobbying for inclusion of rail on the transportation plan, Balkcom has scheduled a Friday meeting with County Commission Chairman Steve Simon. Another meeting is planned with County Administrator John Gallagher.

Simon admitted that laying expensive lines to connect Pasco with Tampa and St. Petersburg is premature. But what happens when population growth and urbanization begin clogging the highways?

"That's when mass transit's going to start looking real attractive," Simon said.

The Tampa Bay regions' two previous attempts at building support for a three-county rail system collapsed.

In the 1970s, the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority, centered in Pinellas, proposed building a monorail. The money dried up when Pasco and Hillsborough refused to support the project.

A similar fate befell the Tampa Bay Commuter Rail Authority in the 1990s.

Authority members failed to unite behind a system -- Hillsborough wanted to save money by using existing railroad lines, Pinellas wanted to build an elevated monorail

"I was flabbergasted. Hillsborough spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on studies and Pinellas likewise. But none of the consultants talked to each other because there were two different concepts," said Land O'Lakes attorney Tim Hayes, one of Pasco's representatives on the commuter rail authority.

Worst of all, surveys showed few people would use commuter rail. One proposed leg of the system, linking Lutz and Land O'Lakes with downtown Tampa, would not have attracted enough riders to justify the cost.

"When you shook it all out, 90-some people would use the line coming through Lutz," Hayes said.

Balkcom's rail concept has yet to include critical details such as where the trains would run, how much the system would cost and when it would be built.

But he speculates about the uses of rail, including moving thousands of sports fans should the summer Olympics come to the Tampa Bay area in 2012.

"I think the Olympics won't even think about us unless we have something to move people around other than axles," Balkcom said.

Pasco's Metropolitan Planning Organization, the group responsible for long-range transportation planning, expects to approve its 2025 transportation needs plan in July. Hillsborough and Pinellas both included light rail in their needs plans, and Balkcom wants Pasco to do the same.

Hayes agrees with placing commuter rail in the transportation plan. But he wouldn't go much further than that.

"The reality of the situation is I don't know if we will ever have the density to justify rail or to get people to give up the freedom of their cars," he said.

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