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Robert Trigaux

As Pinellas tiptoes into mass transit debate, questions on Tampa-Orlando high-speed rail



Interstate4sign Wake up and good morning. The political, financial and practical challenges of making high-speed and light rail transit projects come together in the Tampa Bay area emerged anew Monday. Nobody said such a long-term and status-quo-challenging effort would be easy.

Then, again perhaps we're more motivated to get on with mass transit now that Forbes magazine has named the Tampa Bay area as the nation's worst place for commuters. (Check out this great video clip by Steven D. Manno, an attorney at Andrews & Manno, P.A., which won first place in a recent contest for videos sparking conversation about area transportation issues.)

Pinellas County dipped its toe into the light-rail debate Monday, a critical step now that Hillsborough County is little more than six months away from a vote on a 1-cent surtax for rail and road expansion. As this St. Petersburg Times story notes, Pinellas already is contending with "me first" jockeying by cities trying to lock in rail access for the future. Still, this is the inevitable process that must occur for any light-rail plan to happen, so let the lobbying begin.

KarenSeelpinellascountycommissioner As the Times story notes, Pinellas County Commissioner Karen Seel (photo, right) will head a task force starting in May to bring business and community members together to help plan the county's rail system. The panel also would help decide whether to ask voters to approve a sales tax to pay for trains and new buses in 2011 or 2012, depending on how a similar referendum turns out this year in Hillsborough County.

At the same time, fresh doubts emerged on the Tampa-to-Orlando "high-speed" rail project that earlier this year received a federal grant of $1.25 billion as a partial down payment. A New York Times story raises some good questions over the practicality and choice of the central Florida rail line that would run down the median trip of Interstate 4. Says the story:

"Proponents of high-speed rail worry that the new line, which is scheduled to be up and running in 2015, might hurt rather than help their cause, if it comes to be seen as little more than an expensive way to whisk tourists from Orlando International Airport to Walt Disney World, which is slated to get its own stop."

Some issues from this story to ponder:

* Is the Tampa-Orlando link so short that it never allows "high speed" rail to actually occur? The New York Times story says because the trains would make five stops along the 84-mile route, the new service would rarely sustain its potential 168 mile-per-hour speed and thus shave only about half an hour off the trip when traveled by car. Of course, the state sees the Tampa-Orlando segment as only the first of a longer line connecting Miami -- if the money can be found to make it happen.

* The drive between Orlando and Tampa took the New York Times reporter less than 82 minutes on a "couple of recent test runs" (my question: how many were at rush hour?) while the train is expected to cover the same ground in 54 to 58 minutes. Is a half hour difference likely to compel enough people to switch from I-4 to rail? Some experts say cities should be at least 100 miles apart to accentuate the time savings of high-speed rail and capture riders. Supporters of the Tampa-Orlando line, the story states, see it "as a hedge against future population growth and congestion."

* In the short term, experts predict that up to a third of the train’s ridership would be for the 19-mile trip between the Orlando airport and Walt Disney World, which has agreed to donate land for a stop.

* Even Representative John L. Mica, a Republican whose district in northeast Florida stops about 20 miles short of the proposed line, has questioned whether his state was the best choice to receive some of the $8 billion that was set aside in the stimulus act for high-speed rail.

* Finally, time-pressed passengers may also find themselves frustrated at the end of their trip. Neither Tampa nor Orlando, the story says, "is known for great public transportation, so travelers may discover that they have taken a fast train to a slow bus." A New York Times photo essay captures some of the local the bus experience here.

Which brings us full circle back to Monday's "Pinellas summit" on mass transit. It's still early in getting everyone on board a regional mass transit system. What are the odds we'll end up with one well designed and sufficiently capitalized to work well and get us where we want to go fast enough to leave the car at home?

-- Robert Trigaux, Times Business Columnist

[Last modified: Tuesday, June 1, 2010 11:27am]


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