ST. PETERSBURG — Construction workers have already started building the $2.5 billion high-speed rail link between Tampa and Orlando.
In November, Hillsborough County voters are set to go to the polls to decide the fate of a new light-rail system.
So some might say rail is too far along for the mayor of a city in a neighboring county to suddenly critique these plans.
But of late, St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster has been publicly slamming the high-speed rail plan as being impractical because, for now at least, it doesn't extend to Pinellas County. He has mocked the idea that tourists in Orlando would want to disembark from a train and linger in downtown Tampa rather than the Pinellas beaches.
He says that unless money is made available to link Pinellas to Tampa's high-speed rail system, he will oppose further rail efforts in Hillsborough County. How he'll oppose these efforts he wouldn't say, but Foster said his message to regional transportation leaders is not to leave Pinellas behind.
To stress this point, the St. Petersburg City Council passed a resolution Thursday night that resolved to get transportation leaders to insert Pinellas in the first phase of the high-speed link.
"I want a commitment that the powers that be recognize the importance of a Pinellas County connection and that this will be a priority with them," Foster said. "My fear is without a commitment now, we'll all be competing for the same transportation dollars later on. Then they would just end up expanding in Hillsborough because that's where the rail is."
Foster's comments have struck some Hillsborough transportation officials as ill informed. Ray Chiaramonte, executive director of Hillsborough's long-range transportation planning agency, attended a high-speed rail forum Monday where Foster said it didn't make sense for the high-speed rail line to end in Tampa.
"I thought that was an inappropriate and goofy remark," Chiaramonte said. "But what are you going to say?"
For Chiaramonte and Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio, who have worked for years trying to bring rail to the region, extending high-speed rail to Pinellas just won't work. Light rail, however, will.
High-speed rail is heavier and bulkier than light rail, which is more flexible. If high-speed rail is extended across Tampa Bay, the bridge that would hold it would have to be sturdier, wider and therefore more expensive, Chiaramonte said. Light rail would accomplish transit objectives better once it heads west from Tampa, Iorio said, because it's designed for more frequent stops and slower speeds.
"It makes no sense to take high-speed rail further than Tampa," she said. "You don't take a train system that's heavy and largely designed to go long distances at high speeds and move it through a dense urban environment with a lot of stops. It would be like taking a 747 from Tampa International Airport to Peter O. Knight Airport. The feds wouldn't fund it."
Iorio said she works well with Foster and doesn't believe that he opposes Hillsborough's rail plans, even if Pinellas doesn't get included at first. She said Hillsborough's rail will need Pinellas to hook up to it somehow. She supports persuading state lawmakers and the Florida Department of Transportation to find money to finance a new Howard Frankland Bridge that could support rail.
But she said whether or not Pinellas gets rail depends largely on Pinellas leaders and voters. There is scarce money for high-speed rail, considering that the Orlando-to-Tampa link still needs another $1 billion. She said the federal government won't finance light rail until there is local matching money, which needs to come via a sales tax approved by voters.
Pinellas doesn't have concrete plans yet for voters to decide the issue. But studies are being done now that are looking at the best possible routes in Pinellas that could support rail, and a referendum could go to voters next year or in 2012.
Foster is a latecomer to the rail issue partly because he only recently became mayor. His predecessor, Rick Baker, was hardly a rail champion.
"I never got the sense it was an issue with Baker," Iorio said.
After becoming mayor in January, Foster said he was surprised when the federal government announced that same month it was funding a high-speed rail line in Central Florida, and St. Petersburg wasn't included. He said state lawmakers removed it from the plan in December before the federal award was announced.
"The timing of that sticks in my craw," Foster said. "I'm investigating how that happened."
Michael Van Sickler can be reached at (727) 893-8037 or [email protected]