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Rail will change how Florida, Tampa Bay move, think

Let's distill what happened last week on the possible future of Tampa Bay transportation. Consider this a modern day passion play in two acts.

Scene One: Light Rail

It's lunch time at Magianno's at West Shore and Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio is hunched over layers of maps showing likely routes of a light-rail system linked to upgraded bus lines across Hillsborough County. Hillsborough is the willing first guinea pig in what many hope will be the start of a light rail success. If it shows promise in that city and county, then Pinellas, Pasco and other neighboring counties will likely follow under the umbrella of TBARTA — the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority.

A light rail line between downtown Tampa and the USF-Moffitt world out by Fowler Avenue? A connection between downtown and West Shore or downtown and Tampa International Airport? They would transform how the city moves — and thinks.

We need this, Iorio insists, as Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe nods vigorously. The mayor says she'll be long gone from office — "I may not even be here," she muses — when a light rail system finally opens. But working to make it happen, the mayor says, will be her Jobs 1, 2 and 3 for the rest of her final term of office, which ends after the 2011 election. Nothing's more important.

Then Iorio and Sharpe play the business card. And it's a good one.

Tampa Bay is now only one of a few major metro areas lacking a light rail system, they say. That omission is starting to get noticed by businesses comparing this metro area to others for relocation or expansion. Metro areas with new light rail are not shy about touting it to businesses that consider quality of transportation more and more in expansion decisions.

Every major metro area has traffic woes sure to get worse with growth. Businesses increasingly want to invest in places where employees can commute to and from work without suffering the sheer inefficiency (and costs) of traffic jams. A rail system closely coordinated with a stronger bus system, Iorio and Sharpe argue, could go a long way to keep Tampa Bay competitive.

This political duo knows too well the opposition will fight tooth and nail. At this point, Iorio and Sharpe ask only that the public hear them out. Learn the details before deciding.

The political push is on now in Hillsborough because time is short. To help pay for light rail, Hillsborough County commissioners want a referendum on the 2010 ballot to raise the county sales tax 1 percent.

Scene Two: High-Speed Rail

Last Tuesday, groups rallied in Tampa, Lakeland and Orlando to support a high-speed rail link between Tampa and Orlando. It would be the first link, advocates say, of a high-speed system that would grow to include Miami and, perhaps, other metro areas in the state.

Florida seeks $2.53 billion in federal stimulus money to build a Tampa-Orlando high-speed rail line. It's considered a top contender in the competition for $8 billion in stimulus money attached to President Barack Obama's call for "world-class passenger rail" in 10 major corridors, including Florida.

A statewide, pro-rail group called ConnectUs was formed last month by Tampa's Ed Turanchik, the former Hills­borough County commissioner whose past unfulfilled ambitions have included pursuing the 2012 Olympics for Tampa Bay and reshaping some of Tampa's poorest neighborhoods into a progressive redevelopment project.

Remember the relationship between high-speed rail and light rail.

High-speed rail would need light rail to succeed. Otherwise, someone taking a fast train from Orlando to Tampa would arrive and still lack decent transportation to get where they want to go in a timely manner.

Light rail does not necessarily need high-speed rail to succeed. But it sure would not hurt to have it.

One leading business group and a rising advocate in regional transportation solutions — the Tampa Bay Partnership — says it will push for funding for both rail systems. Stay tuned for Act Three.

Over the coming months I'll explore the complex efforts to introduce a rail-based transportation system in the Tampa Bay area. The business community says it cares, but how much? E-mail me your thoughts and ideas, please.

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

Light rail vs.
high-speed rail

Light rail: An electric railway with a "light volume" traffic capacity compared to heavy rail. Light rail may use shared or exclusive rights-of-way, high or low platform loading and multicar trains or single cars.

High-speed rail: A type of intercity passenger rail transport that operates significantly faster than the normal speed of rail traffic. Definitions can vary, ranging from "above 90 miles per hour" in the United States to, in Europe, 125-200 miles mph.

Rail will change how Florida, Tampa Bay move, think 08/22/09 [Last modified: Friday, August 28, 2009 8:36pm]
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