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Tampa Bay-Orlando may be ready to tie knot on high-speed rail

Sitting in a conference room of 500 people split between leaders of the Tampa Bay and Orlando metro regions, I could swear I heard each side whispering.

Is my tie straight? My makeup okay?

Did I comb my hair? How's my breath?

Like a first date, Tampa Bay and Orlando got together one year ago for the first-ever economic summit. The goal? To explore how two metro regions one day might become one smartly planned "super region" spanning Interstate 4 from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic.

At last week's second super-region economic summit, held at the Gaylord Palms near Orlando, first-date nerves were replaced by more serious intentions. Can we make this relationship into something meaningful? And how do we make that happen when we're still trying to get our respective metro area acts together?

You could say the Tampa Bay-Orlando regional courtship already is heading for a shotgun wedding. The Obama administration picked Tampa-Orlando as one of the nation's first high-speed rail links, and committed an initial $1.25 billion grant to make it happen. That deal cemented Tampa Bay and Orlando as two metro areas that need to get to know each other better, and fast, and start coordinating their futures.

Alone, Tampa Bay boasts the nation's 19th largest GDP (gross domestic product) economy; Orlando is 20th.

Combined, they are the country's 10th largest economy.

It is that potential leap in clout, plus the challenge of handling millions of new people and businesses coming to Central Florida in the years ahead, that motivated the Tampa Bay Partnership and Orlando's Central Florida Partnership to try out these economic summits.

They are opportunities for businesses, economic development and government people to meet their regional counterparts. But they are mostly a chance to start some smart economic, urban and environmental planning to keep Central Florida a place where people want to live and businesses want to build and create better-paying jobs.

Based on Thursday's I-4 traffic encountered driving to and from the Orlando area conference, the summit's goals are also an opportunity to avoid 24/7 interstate gridlock in the coming decade.

That's one reason the success of high-speed rail will depend, in turn, on the quality of regional light rail and bus systems the Tampa Bay and Orlando areas are starting to assemble and finance.

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, praising the two regions' collaboration, chose the super-region summit to announce the release of nearly $67 million in federal grants to move along a high-speed rail project slated to begin operating in 2015.

At one point Thursday, Central Florida Partnership president Jacob Stuart, addressing Tampa Mayor and rail advocate Pam Iorio on the stage, presented a $25,000 check to a new pro-mass transportation group called Moving Hillsborough Forward.

Now that's courtship.

Hillsborough residents will vote this fall on a 1 percent transportation surtax to be used for light rail, expanded bus routes and improved roads. Surrounding counties, including Pinellas, anticipate similar surtaxes later to fund their portions of a regional mass transit system.

Thursday's summit started with the traditional poking of fun at each metro area.

If Orlando has the Mouse (Disney), Tampa Bay has the inventor of the computer mouse (SRI International). If I-4's east coast has the uninhibited, get-dressed-up Daytona Bike Week, Tampa's right there with its Gasparilla pirate fest. If Orlando's hosting the 2012 NBA All Star game, Tampa Bay will welcome the 2012 Republican National Convention.

A more practical analysis of Tampa Bay and Orlando's strongest assets — those most worthy of preserving and building upon for the future — was presented by urban planner Jonathan Barnett, a University of Pennsylvania professor, and graduate students who are part of Barnett's Penn Design consulting group.

"I think this is the most important urban project in the United States at this time," Barnett told the summit.

His team delivered an "alternative" smart growth strategy for Central Florida that relied on more densely developed housing and businesses in downtown Tampa and the Pinellas Gateway/Carillon area, as well as downtown Orlando and other locations from Cape Canaveral to Sarasota. The benefit? Preserving nearly a million acres of Central Florida as natural land or parks. Under today's less rigorous growth practices, that same land would be gobbled up by sprawl and inefficiencies.

Barnett repeated a theme we're starting to hear often as the Tampa-Orlando high-speed rail project starts to gather steam.

"You cannot afford to fail," the urban planner said. Other high-speed rail and mass transportation projects across the country are watching Central Florida closely as a role model for their own efforts.

The message: Don't muck it up.

That admonition alone is good reason to encourage Tampa Bay and Orlando to keep getting to know each other — regional quirks and all. If a super-region marriage is coming, let's make it a solid and equal relationship.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com.

Tampa Bay-Orlando may be ready to tie knot on high-speed rail 05/29/10 [Last modified: Friday, May 28, 2010 6:46pm]
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