Readers weigh in on Tampa Bay's rail readiness

Rail will alter how we move and think | Aug. 23

Transit strategy needs buses first

We've been talking about rail for the bay area for at least the past 20 years and throughout that entire time we've hardly spent a minute really talking about buses.

It's true that all other major metro areas have some form of rail, but they also had vastly better bus networks before they embarked on rail projects. You can't get to and from the rail line without a comprehensive bus system. Yet, because it isn't a "sexy" means of transportation, we never talk about really building a strong system. It's only spoken about in the context of rail and then just as an aside.

Buses today carry those people who, for the most part, can little afford a car and have no other choice. The riders struggle with long, convoluted commutes at infrequent intervals. Yet, most riders are the people who make our hotels, office towers, factories, etc., work. They are a vital factor in our business development. And, during the time I was the mayor of Tampa and was wooing prospective relocations, mention was always made of our sad bus system as a deterrent to development and relocation. Sure, rail would take our area to the next level. But it won't work without a coordinated and comprehensive area investment now in buses as a prelude. The step we must take first is to educate our leaders and community that we must find the resources and build such a system today while we develop and plan the rail system of tomorrow.

Sandy Freedman, former mayor, Tampa

Rail's about our quality of life

I support the notion that light rail is needed to attract business to Tampa Bay. It is much more than that, however.

It is about quality of life for the residents, and it is about bay area tourism. Light rail is the key to robust development of downtown Tampa. Build it and they will come, but only if they have a way to get here.

I moved to Tampa 20 years ago when it was dubbed "America's Next Great City." The reason that potential has not yet been fully realized is because of a lack of parking and good public transportation.

I voted for the bullet train and watched as it was summarily dismissed as too expensive by then-Gov. Jeb Bush. I applaud the leadership of Mayor Iorio on this issue, and encourage the use of your column in helping citizens like myself to find ways to support the grass roots effort behind this important issue.

I believe this time the people will be heard, and we will get it done.

Doug Rhea, Tampa

Airports crucial to rail in Florida

As a retired airline employee, I have been in many airports in countries through out Europe and Asia. Most airports have a rail system connected directly with the airport. To me this is most crucial, especially for Florida.

Any consideration of developing rail in Florida needs to include direct rail to and from the major airports to central locations where parking and or rental agencies for cars would be available.

Bernadette Menz, Safety Harbor

A great idea that's too late for Tampa

The possibility of Tampa having a light rail system? I moved to Tampa 17 years ago from New York City and know something about the subject. Let me say up front that the idea has merit.

Unfortunately, it is far too late in the game to lay train tracks and install passenger stations in this town. Where will the tracks run? Will we rip up Kennedy Boulevard and Dale Mabry Highway? Probably not. If you put a commuter line on Dale Mabry, where will the stations be? Perhaps at Waters Avenue, Fletcher Avenue or Bearss Avenue. Great, but where would you build the station? Will you knock down existing businesses to build the station? Will there be public parking? Probably not, as all of the prime real estate has long since been gobbled up by private industry.

I live miles from any of these locations, as does most everyone else in northwest Hillsborough County, and would need to drive to the station to catch the train.

Light rail in Tampa is a good idea but simply not practical.

P.J. Jaccoi, Tampa

Survey the need before we build

While this doesn't directly relate to an intra-Tampa rail system, I have a point and question to ask about the proposed Tampa-Orlando rail corridor.

I'm a heavy supporter of rail systems — much of that admiration for rail travel gained from riding some of the best rail systems in Europe, including the French and German systems, which are unmatched.

But there is an enormous sociological difference between France and the United States when it comes to rail. The French love their cars, but the price of gas combined with the extraordinarily efficient, wide-ranging and rapid rail system are more than enough to entice people onto trains.

We in the United States have a long love affair with cars, and we pay significantly less for gas. It's going to be much, much more difficult to get people out of their cars and into trains. Why?

Let's look at the proposed Tampa-Orlando fast-train corridor. While there are probably dozens of categories into which you can place Tampa-Orlando travelers, probably the three most prominent are (a) those going to Disney, (b) those visiting friends or relatives in Orlando (or Tampa from the other direction) and (c) businesspeople. The (a) riders will probably find a direct connection between Tampa and Disney, putting them either right at hotels or onto shuttles to take them to hotels. The (b) riders won't have any difficulty getting a friend or relative to meet them at the train depot in Orlando to drive them home. But the (c) travelers, who probably represent the bulk of riders, are a different matter. They all get on at Point A, in Tampa. But Point B, in Orlando, is not their final destination. How are they getting to their place of business or to wherever they're going? Do they now hail a taxi for $15 or $20 more to get there? And another $15 or $20 to get back? And is that inconvenience going to influence them to skip the train and just drive it?

Here's the salient question: Has anyone conducted any kind of survey that would project how many people would use the train to move from Tampa to Orlando? And if not, why not?

The last thing we all need is to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on a rail system that doesn't generate enough ridership.

Charlie Bricker, Tampa

Let's enhance charm for tourists

In the business section of the Aug. 23 Times, two articles underscore the need for us Tampa Bay residents to take heed. Times columnist Robert Trigaux rightfully claims that the move to regional rail will alter us fundamentally. Times staff writer Steve Huettel reports that local tourism will not rebound in 2010.

After visiting South Florida earlier this summer, it sure didn't appear that their tourism numbers are off, based on all the foreign travelers we encountered everywhere, not to mention the difficulty we had finding parking spots. We returned to the more beautiful Tampa Bay area and were amazed at how slow things get here in the off season. This fresh perspective really drove home the urgency we have to differentiate ourselves from other Florida destinations. We're slower and less congested. In other words, it's more relaxing to stay in Tampa Bay than crazy Orlando and South Florida. Yet, we don't lack for things to do. It's the ideal blend. A blend that is very fragile unless we act right away.

We need to focus our energies on enhancing the charm that we have through mass transit in our tourist-centered regions: downtown St. Petersburg, Tampa, Clearwater and the Gulf beaches. Every leader in our region is not even addressing the need to shuttle our tourists around better and they focus all their energies on expensive and unproven urban rail systems. Not one has addressed the troubles of the South Florida Tri-Rail, perpetually underfunded and underutilized, despite being in a very congested urban area. These troubles will repeat themselves here, guaranteed.

Ride the Tide, Tampa Bay is calling for us to put the tourists first as we plan the future. They are the ones most likely to use mass transit, if it is done right. The southern line of a regional system should be the focus by extending the Ybor/Channelside streetcar to a water taxi across our bay, connecting to a streetcar in downtown St. Petersburg to Tropicana Field. There is an existing rail line to Clearwater from the Trop. All the puzzle pieces have been found.

We should also come together as a region and Central Florida should install the nation's first high-speed rail from St. Petersburg to Daytona Beach. This will alleviate TBARTA and other regions of financial burdens because the state and feds will take over. This is the place to start, then we should design other lines that feed into this main line.

Of all the things I mentioned, I urge every St. Pete Times reader to get involved and study other areas experience with the conversion to rail systems. Charlotte, N.C., installed an aesthetic streetcar in their downtown and it paid for itself in six years, due to the increased tax revenue of all the businesses and residences that sprung up after the line was built.

Certainly, St. Petersburg is as pretty as Charlotte, and a San Francisco-type streetcar will secure our leadership in the tourism industry.

Right now, I think that Tampa Bay is like a bottle of champagne that has gone flat. Otherwise we would have as many tourists as South Florida. We need to get people to come back and to relax, old Florida style.

Jeannie Cline, St. Petersburg

Take advantage of rights of way

One of the first things to do is to inventory existing railroad rights of way to determine if they would be suitable for one or more light rail lines. The less the rail cars are on public streets, the faster schedule speeds they will achieve, which means economy of operation. Also, the line(s) can be built faster and cheaper with minimum impact on business and auto travel.

This approach is nothing new as many of the newly built North American light and heavy rail lines (not to mention commuter rail lines) have taken advantage of such resources. Often the railroad rights-of-way are wide enough to accommodate a double track passenger line together with one existing line for freight only. In other instances, light-rail lines share the space with freight trains scheduled late when the passenger service is not operating. The railroads are usually willing to work with the community as this means revenue to them via rental charges, leases or outright purchase of the land. Often the real estate adjoining the rail lines is industrial in nature, frequently blighted, and its removal makes possible new passenger station construction together with parking lots and feeder bus interchanges.

I am from the Chicago area and have used its excellent rail passenger services for many years. As a Tampa snowbird, I often wonder why the community is so lacking in balanced rail transportation from which it could derive great benefit. Starting from scratch will take broad vision on a metropolitan basis (no one community could or should go it alone). Just Google "light rail" and you will see what I mean.

Edward Tobin, East Lake Woodlands and Rockton, Ill.

First, voters need better details

It is definitely a big positive that there is so much dialogue and activity around rail development, and widespread recognition of the benefits that the entire metro area can realize from a well-planned, attractive system.

However, I have huge concerns about the meager strategic and tactical details that I've seen mentioned in the press, in TBARTA's published plans, by HART, and by Mayor Pam Iorio. In addition, the use of generic terminology such as "light rail" and "commuter rail" could prove to be a major obstacle with respect to any tax referendums.

Before an effective referendum campaign can be run, people need to know exactly what they are voting for or against. Most people don't know what light rail and commuter rail are, and are not necessarily aware of the fact that these alternatives can take many forms. This can further blur any distinction in the average voter's mind.

Before any referendum, tell us the specifics:

How fast will trains run? Whatever technology is used, and whether we call it light rail, commuter rail, or heavy rail, it must be capable of speeds up to 75 mph for longer distances, such as across the bay, and 40 to 50 mph on shorter segments. Anything slower will not get riders out of their cars, and will be perceived as more of a toy (like the Tampa streetcar) vs. serious transit.

What will it look like, and where will lines run? Detailed architectural renderings need to be part of any campaign, and specific station locations should be justified and publicized.

What will the cost be, and how will it be financed? Opportunities for cost-sharing on station construction should be quantified and included, along with exploration of every federal and state dollar available.

What are ridership projections, and expected fares? Flat fares, or distance-based fares? High-tech routing assistance and ticket vending? A consistent unified Web application should be utilized to provide for door-to-door trip planning, schedule information, and vending of fare tickets. Web-enabled kiosks providing access to the same application should be deployed in stations and other appropriate public locations. Routes should interface with bus routes and other public transit modes such as intercity rail.

Emphasize and elaborate on the metro rail network. The metro rail network needs to be emphasized initially, and a single technology utilized to link Tampa, St. Petersburg and Clearwater. Disjointed technology and routing will reduce the potential number of riders.

Use established, high-activity corridors vs. developing new ones: Major existing arteries that contain many destinations are where rail lines should be run, because ridership will be much higher. Creating a new line removed from such arteries will have at least two negative consequences. In the near term, ridership will be much lower because of a dearth of destinations along the line. In the long term, as development is attracted to the new line, older arteries nearby are likely to become stagnant and decayed. Yes, it will be more expensive to build along existing arteries; however, a much larger initial ridership attracted by many existing destinations and redevelopment instead of abandonment for new corridors is more attractive, more efficient, and less costly in the long haul.

Lines should be elevated above major traffic arteries to remain separate from auto traffic. Besides the obvious safety aspect, there is also an advantage to having overhead trains very visible to auto drivers sitting in traffic jams in order to underscore the fact that taking the train can be faster than driving. Urban streetscapes below rail lines should be redesigned as part of the rail project to make pedestrian use safer and more attractive.

Don't get involved with CSX. The company held the Tampa streetcar project hostage to huge insurance requirements. It is still attempting to shift liability to the state and profit handsomely by its proposed involvement in Orlando's SunRail project. CSX has a less-than-stellar record of acknowledging and being accountable for accidents within its system, as previously reported in the Times. Its rail corridors do not contain many existing destinations to attract riders from day one.

These are the main areas I'd like to see more dialogue on, although there are many more details that should be worked out in advance of any referendum in order to give it any hope of passing.

Bud Wills, Tampa

Learn the lessons of Tri-Rail

I urge you and everyone in Tampa Bay to take a hard look at the challenges that Tri-Rail faces. Despite being in South Florida with severe traffic congestion, only 11,000 daily riders use it. As stated by some of your readers, access to and from the stations is major problem in suburban design. Park-n-Ride is the only answer by the transportation people and it doesn't solve the problem.

After being in South Florida recently and not using Tri-Rail once in three weeks, I wondered why they hadn't focused on the old urban thoroughfare — the main road before Interstate 95 was built. A monorail or streetcar along that major urban road would have worked better, as the destinations at the stations are within walking distance. Believe it or not, the monorail in downtown Detroit (a mere 1.5-mile loop) draws 200,000 a month vs. the 300,000 for the Tri-Rail. As for the rail situation in general, I believe that Central Florida should come together as a region and install a high-speed train from St. Petersburg to Daytona Beach. Right now, each region is fighting for diminishing federal funds. We should start here and let the hordes of tourists lead the way, and then follow suit by designing auxiliary, regional lines.

As for Tampa Bay, the group I am part of is Ride the Tide, Tampa Bay. We are pushing for a water taxi and a streetcar along Central Avenue to Tropicana Field (which would also be at the terminal for the Clearwater rail and the high speed rail along Interstate 275 as mentioned above). TBARTA means well, yet it is going way too far with its plan and is scaring people; and never, never does it answer any inquiry about the systemic problems with Tri-Rail (because it is replicating it). This is serious stuff and TBARTA is so closed to any feedback, despite all the public meetings it is required to hold.

It sounds like I am anti-rail. On the contrary. I love rail, especially urban rail, having been a daily rider in New York City, Tokyo, Philadelphia and Denver. Buses just don't cut it and, as usual, the authorities are expecting the inner-city folks to ride them along with the tourists. The TBARTA plan is a shambles regarding tourists getting to the beaches. It would take about two hours to get to the coast from downtown Tampa with its plan. When I brought this up at the latest meeting, not one person addressed this deficiency.

Why?

Rand Moorhead, Ride the Tide, St. Petersburg

Study will prevent costly boondoggle

The motivation for creating and using a rail system — local, high-speed or regular long-distance — seems to focus on the ideas of easier travel and the benefit of not having to have cars to transport users to and from the places served by the rail system. However admirable these points of view are, there are important issues to evaluate.

No matter which system is considered, the users must first get to the station they wish to use. Users who can't walk to the station need a feeder system to get there. Usually transportation to the station is by an acceptable bus system or driving a car to a parking area near the station.

Of course, if the bus can't be reasonably reached on foot, the user must first drive to and park close to the bus line. From that point there must be a convenient way to change from buses or rail systems until the station closest to the destination is reached. If the destination is not close to the station, transportation to the destination is needed. For these users, the total cost can be considerable, consisting of parking fees, bus and rail tickets, and any final destination costs. If the total cost or convenient scheduling doesn't suit the user, the system is unlikely to be used.

As a Florida rail system is considered, there should be an investigation into the cost to subsidize the system as well as the eventual cost to users. Whether for construction, operating or maintaining the system, existing systems indicate continuing taxpayer funding. Since existing systems are used differently during the rush to work, off-peak daytime, evening, night and weekend hours, there is opportunity for study to evaluate how those differences may impact a Florida rail system as well as who the users may be.

As the current effort is being presented, it seems that much of the complexity of use and costing isn't part of the general conversation. An inadequately evaluated system built in Florida could become a boondoggle for which the taxpayer support never ends.

Richard Paquette, Palm Harbor

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Readers weigh in on Tampa Bay's rail readiness 08/28/09 [Last modified: Friday, August 28, 2009 9:32pm]

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