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Rep. Grant, Sen. Young push for high-tech transit money over rail

By Caitlin Johnston
Published: December 14, 2017 Updated: December 14, 2017 at 10:04 PM
Tampa Bay Area Regional Transit Authority Chairman Jim Holton talks about a piece of legislation filed by State Sen. Dana Young and Rep. Jamie Grant for high-tech transportation projects.

TAMPA — State Sen. Dana Young and Rep. Jamie Grant want the state to spend transportation dollars on driverless cars and rapid buses, not rail.

Tampa Bay has tried, and failed, for more than three decades to build a more robust transit system. Throughout that struggle, the concept of rail has polarized the region with many seeing rail as a magic bullet solution while strong opponents rally against any efforts to build such a system. The result is a history of stalled plans and failed votes.

Thursday's announcement from Young and Grant falls in the anti-rail camp, with Grant calling rail "expensive, rigid and inflexible."

The plan is to take $60 million from Sunrail, Orlando's highly criticized rail project, and divert it to "innovative, alternative" transportation options. As long as there is a local match for those dollars, Tampa Bay could get as much as $25 million each year, with another $25 million going to Miami Dade and the rest to other projects across the state.

Young said this legislation doesn't prevent other projects from moving forward, but instead provides an additional fund dedicated to high-tech solutions.

"What I can tell you we don't want to be is Sunrail," Grant said. "What I can tell you we don't want to be as a local community is having a train that costs us more money to print a ticket than it would to give the ride away for free.

"So while regions of the state have said they're going to spend a boat load of money to lay fixed rail, what we're saying is we want to deliver sustainable, efficient and meaningful transportation in a way that doesn't burn the taxpayer."

Jim Holton, chairman of the recently repurposed Tampa Bay Area Regional Transit Authority, said this move isn't in conflict with an ongoing regional premium transit plan that looks to select regional projects that can get federal funding. A recent update of that study identified light rail along Interstate 275 as the highest-ranking transit option. But Holton said the study "does not rule in or out rail one way or the other."

"I think as we get into this, we're going to look at the economic efficiencies of a lot of this stuff, too," Holton said. "We cannot be locked into 20th century ideas in the 21st century. Fixed guideway systems, especially rail, are very costly. A lot of upfront cost.

"And I think the governor and the legislature are looking at more productive ways to move people efficiently, economically and fairly throughout the Tampa Bay region.""I think we have to look at a whole constellation of different ideas in Tampa Bay and not just be locked into the whole idea that rail is the only way. Because rail is not the only way."