Tampa Bay can learn from Orlando's failure with its SunRail commuter rail plan

Orlando's mass transit loss is Tampa Bay's learning opportunity.

State legislators gave a big thumbs down last week to Orlando's SunRail, the proposed $1.2 billion, 61.5-mile commuter rail service intended to operate along CSX railroad tracks.

The Tampa Bay business community went out of its way to throw its support behind distant SunRail, lobbying legislators and Friday running a full page ad in this newspaper — complete with more than 50 names of business and civic leaders — urging approval of SunRail.

It was not to be. SunRail died for many quotable reasons. "We're billions short in our state budget and in a recession." "Not enough commuters will use it to justify the cost." The deal's complex political history also hurt its support.

But SunRail suffered from basic problems. Out-of-favor CSX was the owner of the rail lines. And an unfortunate provision in the deal left the state exposed and liable in case there was a wreck involving the commuter service.

SunRail's deal to use CSX tracks expires June 30, perhaps killing the deal for good.

All good lessons for Tampa Bay to absorb and avoid in the future as this metro area gets serious about building support for its own mass transit system called TBARTA — the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transit Authority.

Tampa Bay's business world got involved, wisely so, in SunRail for good reasons. Central Florida — it does not matter if it's Orlando or Tampa Bay — is getting too crowded to keep adding lanes to roads and then claiming transportation victory.

Had legislators blessed SunRail, that success could have supplied a map for TBARTA to pursue its own goals.

As economic development officials repeat: The greater Tampa Bay and Orlando areas are converging. Like it or not, we'll need a mass transit system, other than our already dreaded Interstate 4, connecting our two metro area transit systems.

Not to be confused with SunRail or TBARTA is yet another rail system, part of a national, high-speed rail proposal that could link Tampa and Orlando with Miami. Any progress on that system would depend on federal stimulus money.

This is not just about Central Florida. Comparable metro areas, including Charlotte, N.C., Denver and Dallas — even smaller cities like Little Rock, Nashville, Austin, Memphis and Salt Lake City — all have young mass transit systems. Of the largest 25 metro areas, only Tampa Bay and Detroit do not have rail or rail projects.

Ignore ours long enough and Tampa Bay will be branded as a less-than-competitive business area.

"When do we become endangered here? Through many metrics, we know that transportation is one of the challenges in our community as we grow," says Stuart Rogel, who heads the Tampa Bay Partnership regional economic development group.

"We hear it as the No. 1 issue from our business leaders, and an increasing concern as we talk to people considering business opportunities in the Tampa Bay area."

When the time is right, Tampa Bay's own mass transit plan may face many of the same legislators and issues that kiboshed Orlando's rail system. Here's hoping that area backers will have learned their SunRail lessons well.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8405.

Tampa Bay can learn from Orlando's failure with its SunRail commuter rail plan 05/04/09 [Last modified: Monday, May 4, 2009 9:20pm]

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