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Mike Suarez: HART should evaluate options outside of CSX



Some local politicians have gotten excited about the prospect of converting 96-miles of CSX tracks to commuter rail, but Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority Chairman Mike Suarez isn't sure it's the best option.

The HART board discussed conducting a feasibility study of all “premium transit” options for the region, including bus rapid transit, light rail and commuter rail. The concept was floated last month at a Tampa Bay Transportation Management Area Leadership Group meeting. 

Florida Department of Transportation district director of transportation development Debbie Hunt told officials gathered then that the study could take 18 to 24 months. FDOT would pay for the study, but HART, as the regional entity, would conduct it.

"CSX is an option that we need to look at it, but I’m not sure it’s the only option," Suarez said Tuesday. "It may not even be the most cost effective option. We need to look at everything."

Representatives of Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas will further explore the possibility of converting the tracks during a TMA meeting Friday. The concept of using the tracks for commuter rail has been batted around for decades, but has recently regained momentum after CSX confirmed in September that it would be willing to sell two lines: one from Brooksville to Tampa, the other from St. Petersburg, through Clearwater, into Tampa.

Orlando entered into a similar deal with CSX in 2011, creating SunRail. That network runs on 61.5 miles of tracks and is slated for an expansion to the airport.

The FDOT-funded study will determine whether a similar initiative is a good fit for Tampa Bay or if other options, such as bus rapid transit, would better serve the region.

"We need to look at it, but you can't just say this solves everybody's problems," Suarez said. "It's not just about having a rail corridor. It's about where does it go, how many people does it serve, and is this the best rail spine to use in order to get the most people on the tracks."

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