TAMPA — Mayor Bob Buckhorn likes public-private partnerships, but a project the city wants to do with CSX has gone off the rails.
That’s because the estimated cost of creating a "quiet zone" where CSX freight trains won’t blast their horns as they roll through downtown Tampa has more than doubled to $7 million or more.
"It’s outrageous," Buckhorn said this week. "We can’t afford it."
The problem is, the quiet zone is something the city wants, but the railroad, a private company, has the say about work done at its rail crossings. And from the start, it’s been made clear to City Hall that any improvements would have to be paid for at the local level.
"We don’t really have a whole lot of leverage over the railroad," said Bob McDonaugh, the city’s top development official. "It’s not like I can call another contractor — or do anything without their express permission."
Early last year, Tampa officials thought they had an agreement to pay CSX $3.2 million to install gates and flashing lights on nine streets with railroad crossings: Florida Avenue, Doyle Carlton and Ashley drives, and Tampa, Franklin, Marion, Morgan, Pierce and Jefferson streets.
By stopping traffic, the gates would allow CSX engineers to go through downtown without the warning blasts that federal regulations otherwise require as they approach ungated crossings. Without the gates, engineers have to sound their horns 15 to 20 seconds before they reach a public crossing, day or night, as they do now.
The $3.2 million agreement was based on preliminary design work that CSX had done. But in late summer, more detailed estimates came out showing it would cost $3.6 million just to reconfigure electrical conduits and do related work at the crossings.
By late October, McDonaugh said CSX told city officials that the project cost would top $7 million and could be more if other unforeseen circumstances arose.
"An open checkbook," McDonaugh said.
But CSX said in a statement released through media relations manager Laura Phelps that "the preliminary cost projections for the city of Tampa’s quiet zone project were based on similar quiet zone projects CSX has completed in other areas of its network.
"These were estimated costs," the company’s statement said, and that was spelled out in the construction agreement the City Council approved last year. "Each quiet zone project across our network is unique and can differ according to variables such as geography/environment, power source availability and changes in scope or design."
The company added: "After conducting preliminary engineering, the expected costs to construct a quiet zone in downtown Tampa increased significantly, and the city informed CSX of its decision to terminate the project."
The Florida Department of Transportation had awarded Tampa a $1.35 million grant to help pay for the improvements. When the cost was around $3 million, Buckhorn had said the city would go ahead on a project that was a high priority and worth the money.
But "$7 million for that is just not going to happen," he said.
Discussions about what to do next stopped during the holidays. McDonaugh said the city would like to resume them, though it’s unclear whether the city has any options other than to pay up or give up.
"Unfortunately, dealing with CSX can be challenging in the best of circumstances," Buckhorn said. "They make the rules. They set the standards. They demand what they demand. And we either say yes or no, and in this case, we’re going to say no."
Downtown high-rise residents whose tenant or homeowners associations have spent years lobbying for relief were crestfallen.
"Disheartening," said Bob Whitecotton, the new president of the SkyPoint Condominium Association. "I think there’s going to be a lot of very upset people in downtown, not limited to SkyPoint."
Trains rolling through downtown have sounded their horns for decades, but the noise has become more of an issue as new development has transformed downtown Tampa from a purely commercial zone into more of a residential neighborhood. Residents have described trying to sleep with earplugs or noise-cancelling headphones.
"It’s not good for the city, and it doesn’t make it a good environment for people to live," Whitecotton said. "It wakes people up in the middle of the night and it runs all hours. ... We thought there was an end in sight. All we see now is a train coming at us."
While Buckhorn said he has a hard time seeing a path forward at the cost CSX has determined, the railroad said it has not closed the door to further discussion.
"CSX has regularly communicated with city staff throughout this process to keep them informed about progress and any unexpected issues and to answer any questions they may have," the company said in its statement to the Tampa Bay Times. "We remain committed to keeping an open dialogue with city leaders and staff as we continue serving Tampa area businesses that depend on freight rail."
In the meantime, Buckhorn said, "folks who now have a complaint about the noise at 3 in the morning, we’ll give them CSX’s number."
Contact Richard Danielson at [email protected] or (813) 226-3403. Follow @Danielson_Times