Light rail may link Pinellas to high speed line
By JEAN HELLER
ST. PETERSBURG -- Florida's new high-speed rail system might stop short of St. Petersburg, victimized by cost and logistics.
The Florida High Speed Rail Authority decided Monday to give the Legislature the option of running light rail from Tampa to St. Petersburg, to link up with the more costly high speed rail line planned between Tampa and Orlando.
The light-rail option surfaced after authority members said they had been told that high-speed rail between Tampa and St. Petersburg would need its own bridge across Tampa Bay and would cost about $1.5-billion. A light rail line could run along the Howard Frankland or Gandy Bridge corridor, though it would need a new roadbed.
"A cost-benefit analysis might suggest that light rail is better," said Heidi Eddins, a member of the authority board and general counsel for Florida East Coast Industries. "I'm not saying that we make the decision. I'm saying we might want to consider the option."
In fact, it is the Legislature that will make the final decision during the session that begins in late January. The authority must have a draft report ready by then and hopes to get the green light to begin the contracting process by the time the Legislature adjourns in March.
Under the constitution amendment voters approved in 2000, construction on the first leg of the project must begin by November 2003.
The rub is that all of the legal language surrounding the high-speed system, which is to connect Florida's five largest population centers, specifies that the first east-west leg begin in St. Petersburg, run through Tampa and end in Orlando. The second phase would tie Orlando to Miami. A congressional appropriations bill provides $3-million for high speed rail, as long as the line makes a stop in St. Petersburg.
The prospect of anything less than high speed rail does not sit well with St. Petersburg officials.
"I don't think much of that idea," Mayor Rick Baker said. "I think what we have proposed is that the high-speed rail do what the statute says -- go to St. Petersburg. It doesn't say there is a light-rail connector. The high-speed rail goes Orlando to Tampa to St. Petersburg."
Several other factors bothered Baker, first the general assumption that the Tampa terminus for the rail system would be Union Station, just east of downtown Tampa. The most direct route west from Union Station would take the line through downtown and some upscale residential areas, making the Tampa to St. Petersburg leg a tough sell, Baker said.
Adding to the difficulty, CSX has said it will not share existing tracks with high-speed rail, according to members of the authority.
However, authority chairman Fred Dudley, a Tallahassee lawyer and former lawmaker, said the Union Station terminus was the idea of the region's Olympic organizing committee, and is no longer locked in.
Baker also expressed concern that even though the first leg of high-speed rail is supposed to stretch from St. Petersburg to Orlando, all the planning is for a shorter leg from Tampa to Orlando.
"The reason Tampa-to-Orlando is singled out is because the mandate is to begin construction by 2003," said project director Adrian Share. "That's the stretch where we have the most information relating to the required environmental studies. We couldn't get all the information together for the St. Petersburg leg in time."
Dudley said the light rail option for St. Petersburg made sense because the city didn't need a 300-mile-an-hour link with Tampa.
"If you're building a rail link between Orlando and Miami, a distance of 200 miles, and you want the fastest train feasible, you pick the mag-lev (magnetic levitation, which can travel at speeds in excess of 250 mph)," Dudley said. "If you're going 10 miles, you can probably get by with slower, less expensive technology. It's the difference between buying a pickup and a semi. What do you have to haul, how far and how fast?"
The St. Petersburg City Council has proposed two stations in the city, one in the Gateway area near the west end of the Frankland Bridge and one downtown near Tropicana Field.
The authority spent two hours debating whether the high-speed rail system should cross any existing highways.
C.C. Dockery, the Lakeland millionaire who got the rail measure on the ballot by spending millions of his own fortune, said the hallmark of European high-speed systems was that "you could set your watch by them."
"If you're going to run a high-speed system, you have to run the trains on time," Dockery said. "Any place the tracks cross a highway is a potential delay."
The authority directed its engineers to make elimination of crossings a design criteria, but to leave the flexibility for exceptions where costs or engineering difficulties make the ideal situation impossible.
-- Staff writer Bryan Gilmer contributed to this report.
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