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Light rail snub was a mistake, says St. Petersburg official

ST. PETERSBURG — Pity poor rail.

It just can't get any respect in Tampa Bay.

First, Hillsborough County residents in November voted down a 1-cent sales tax to build a light rail system.

Then, earlier this year, Gov. Rick Scott rejected $2 billion to pay for high-speed rail from Orlando to Tampa.

The latest snub comes in the form of a long-term plan for how St. Petersburg will redevelop its downtown. The plan — which the council will vote on today — made no mention of rail in downtown's future.

"I'm not sure if it was deliberate," said City Council member Jeff Danner. "I'm hoping it was just an oversight."

The city's downtown redevelopment plan covers 309 acres that stretch from the city's waterfront to Tropicana Field. Since 1982, this document has served as the blueprint for how the city will invest millions in taxpayer dollars in projects such as the Pier, parking garages and renovations to the Mahaffey Theater.

Last year, Mayor Bill Foster got the City Council to approve $2.5 million that had been earmarked for downtown pedestrian projects to be spent instead on the Salvador Dali Museum. To reflect that, the redevelopment plan had to be changed, said Rick Mussett, the senior administrator for city development.

As long as the city was making that change, city administrators decided to make other updates to the plan, which was written in 1982. Most changes cleaned up language or reflected recent developments, such as how the Bayfront Center is now called the Progress Energy for the Arts.

But as the old language was stricken from the document, so was — mistakenly — all mention of rail, Mussett said.

For instance, removed was this statement: "(The transportation program) could utilize a sophisticated and innovative type vehicle, possibly elevated or fixed rail, which would provide a unique travel experience."

Added was this statement: "A vibrant downtown requires a transportation system that balances automobile access with pedestrian-oriented facilities such as bus, trolley, biking and walking."

What happened to rail?

"It was an oversight," Mussett said. "It will be corrected. If this region wants to be competitive, it needs a regional rail system. It's kind of a given."

Pinellas County is awaiting the results of a study that will determine whether this area can support rail, and if so, how. By year's end, it will depict the best routes for a viable rail system. At least two or three rail stations are expected to be proposed in St. Petersburg.

"I'm not too worried because I know the city is totally engaged in rail," said Brian Smith, executive director of the Pinellas County Metropolitan Planning Organization. "The city has been one of the most committed groups in support of it."

Just to be safe, though, Danner will make sure it's included in the plan before voting on it today.

"When (Scott) rejected the high-speed rail money, it took the spotlight off rail," Danner said. "But I still think there is a strong interest in it. The consensus I see with the city and the chamber of commerce is that no one is questioning why we are considering rail."

Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (727) 893-8037 or mvansickler@sptimes.com.

Light rail snub was a mistake, says St. Petersburg official 06/15/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 15, 2011 10:22pm]
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