Fresh thinking -- better ideas -- start to emerge on high-speed, regional rail systems
Wake up and good morning. Two rail transportation projects in central Florida -- the high-speed link between Tampa and Orlando and the so-far ill-fated regional light rail and bus system for Tampa Bay -- began inching forward this week. Why? Because both projects showed some innovative thinking.
In the high-speed rail effort, which is largely funded initially by federal grants, state and project leaders wary of subsidizing the rail line with meager state funds (and in incoming governor and legislature looking to cut costs) talked about the private companies bidding for the rail project to pick up the tab. Kevin Thibault (photo, left), executive director of Florida Rail Enterprise, which is the part of the Florida Department of Transportation that is overseeing the project said he would include in the request for proposals from the bidders whether they would be willing to invest the $340 million and make up the shortfall, the Tampa Tribune reported here. Whether that money would eventually be repaid in federal funds to the private company that wins the rail project is not clear.
Separately, in the Tampa Bay regional mass transit project, a task force charged with looking at Pinellas County's public transit future on Monday endorsed a regional sales tax and raising the county's gas tax to pay for light rail and bus upgrades. Working in small groups over 3 ½ hours Monday, members endorsed giving the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority oversight of a 1-cent sales tax in Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties — a power the agency lacks now, the St. Petersburg Times reported here.
So... some fresh thinking on both projects. If the state won't help with high-speed rail, get private investors involved. And consider a regional tax to support a regional mass transportation project rather than this silly, laborious and highly vulnerable method of getting county-by-county tax approval. If the state Legislature created a transportation district among several counties, similar to what it has done in establishing the Southwest Florida Regional Water Management District, then only a majority of voters across all of those counties would have to approve a transportation sales tax, Pinellas officials suggested, the Tampa Tribune noted here.
None of these fresh ideas will be easy. But bravo to those involved in both high-speed rail and, especially, the regional mass transit system for not giving up and looking for innovative ways to make things happen.
-- Robert Trigaux, Times Business Columnist