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Robert Trigaux

Rally time for area mass transit, biz leaders urge, but are we in high-speed rail game?



UPDATED: See below.

Wake up and good morning. Economic development leaders want Tampa Bay businesses to rally around Hillsborough County's Board of County Commissioners which is scheduled to vote Wednesday (Dec. 2) on the resolution that states their intention to put the referendum on the 2010 ballot for a 1 cent sales tax to fund transportation and transit.

"We would like to have as many business leaders in the audience as possible to show our strong support for this effort," says an email memo to members of the Tampa Bay Partnership, a big business backer of the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority’s (TBARTA) mass transit plan. "We hope you can join us," the email adds, citing the time (Wednesday, Dec. 2, 11:15 a.m.) and place (County Center, 2nd Floor, downtown Tampa). Here's the Tampa Bay Partnership's official stand on mass transit and, better yet, the economic development group's argument why mass transit is key to the area's economic vitality going forward.

If you don't live in Hillsborough and assume this has nothing to do with you, dream on. Hillsborough is the leading edge of a regional effort to establish a Tampa Bay-wide mass transit system of light rail and improved bus service. If Hillsborough voters next fall approve the 1 cent sales tax, it's very likely similar resolutions will appear quickly in neighboring counties. Hillsborough's simply the starting point, in part because it has the greater density to justify a core of regional mass transit, and in part because Hillsborough has the political chops to try and move forward while other counties are, arguably, content to let someone else do the heavy lifting in a recession.

But regional light rail is only part of the complex transportation game now under way. With the Obama administration waving $8 billion to states for high-speed rail projects, a Tampa Bay-to-Orlando high-speed rail project has also been submitted to the Federal Railroad Administration in hopes of winning some of that $8 billion sum and creating a high-speed rail link link along I-4 between central Florida's two growing metro areas.

In Florida, there are high hopes that the Tampa Bay-Orlando link is a strong contender for federal funding, even though this project is competing against other pitches from California, the Midwest and Northeast. Combined, all regional projects seek $57 billion.

So it was a bit distressing to read USA Today's coverage of the national contest for high-speed rail money, which suggests other parts of the country seem to have the upper hand so far. Says the USA Today story, citing Yoav Hagler, an associate planner for America 2050, an organization focused on infrastructure, economic development and the environment:

"Hagler, who has studied potential rail links across the country, says California, the Midwest and the Northeast should split the first round of money."

The story notes Hagler co-authored a report for America 2050 that says the greatest demand for rail would be served by linking San Francisco to Los Angeles, Washington to Boston, and Chicago to Minneapolis, Detroit and St. Louis. "These are the places that have the population, the economies, and the existing travel markets to really support these systems," says Hagler who suggests the feds will favor projects that have studied the environmental effects of their proposals, giving an edge to California.

If this is true, ouch. I wonder if Florida has the savvy in Washington to compete effectively against the lobbying efforts by other parts of the country seeking high-speed rail funds. We'll find out in a few months. Here's the complete USA Today story. In Tallahassee, which thus far has shown weak leadership on rail issues, state legislators now want to hold a special session starting Thursday (Dec. 3) to address the matter. Here's more information.

UPDATE: The Tampa Bay Partnership on Tuesday shared a letter it had sent earlier this fall to the America 2050 group voicing concern over the low status given the Florida high-speed rail project. The letter questions the group's methods of measuring which metro areas would stand to most benefit from high-speed rail, noting America 2050's failure to count tourists visiting Florida as potential users of a rail system. Some oversight!

A regional mass transit project does not depend on getting fed funding for high speed rail. But the two projects in tandem would prove a major boost. Critics may find plenty to fault in such expensive undertakings but imagining Tampa Bay 20 years from now with little more than the bus system now in place is downright scary.

-- Robert Trigaux, Times Business Columnist

[Last modified: Tuesday, June 1, 2010 11:26am]


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