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Summit tries to drum up support for light rail in Pinellas County

ST. PETERSBURG — Mayor Bill Foster pledged to support efforts to bring light rail to Pinellas County.

Foster said he's ready to push for federal funding for a St. Petersburg-Tampa connection — a crucial piece of a Tampa Bay area network.

He's just not ready to commit to a whole meeting yet.

Foster found a seat among 300 officials and business people at a two-hour transit "summit" at 8 a.m. Monday in St. Petersburg. The meeting was meant to encourage prominent officials and business members to champion the concept, a key part of successful campaigns for trains.

But at 8:35 a.m., Foster left, checking for more coffee before heading to a scheduled visit to Shore Acres Elementary.

Former Mayor Rick Baker made rail less of a priority during his tenure, questioning its cost. When asked if he'd make it a bigger priority than Baker, Foster said simply: "Yes, yes."

Foster said he will lobby for a light rail connection to Hillsborough via the Howard Frankland Bridge.

He might even attend meetings of the Tampa Bay Area Transportation Authority, the regional arm of transportation planning. City Council member Jeff Danner has that role now, as the mayor's designee.

"I might, I might. Let me see how this Transit Authority does," said Foster, referring to a task force being formed by County Commissioner Karen Seel.

Seel's task force, which begins in May, will bring business and community members into planning the county's rail system. The panel also would help decide whether to ask voters to approve a sales tax to pay for trains and new buses in 2011 or 2012, depending on how a similar referendum turns out this year in Hillsborough County.

Already, chambers of commerce in St. Petersburg and Clearwater have begun promoting the rail effort. A Web site, pinellastransitworks.com, went up. John Long, president of the St. Petersburg chamber, said plans also are in the works to create a political committee for the campaign.

Such efforts were crucial in Phoenix, which opened a rail system in 2008 that exceeded ridership projections, Don Keuth, president of the Phoenix Community Alliance, told the crowd.

Still, a Pinellas referendum and subsequent construction will face many obstacles, from the recession to the inability to use tax money to lobby for support to public questions over rail's worth.

Another potential hang-up: Amendment 4. If voters approve the constitutional amendment, planning changes in cities and counties would have to be approved in an election, not by commissions and councils. Assembling a rail route is sure to need to many land use changes.

And finally, political infighting can occur as various parts of the community jockey to have their section built first.

Ed Turanchik, president of rail proponent Connect- Us, wants a route between a planned Tampa high-speed rail station and Clearwater by 2015 to cart tourists to the beach. It would likely have to run through Oldsmar and Safety Harbor areas on an existing rail route, Seel said.

That's not the Foster link.

"Already," St. Petersburg City Council member Karl Nurse told Keuth, "we're hearing rumblings of me first, me first."

David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8779.

. FAST FACTS

Lessons from Phoenix

Don Keuth, president of the Phoenix Community Alliance, gave Pinellas County a primer Monday on how construction of light rail worked in his community. Keuth's organization helped promote the project.

Watch the left turns: Phoenix area officials tried to avoid the crashes that gave Houston's system a bad reputation. Instead, Phoenix beat it. Left turns in front of rail lines, built onto streets there, can be dangerous.

Get business to invest: Not just campaigning for rail, but pouring money into buildings and development along the route. Arizona State University spent tens of millions on creating a downtown campus hub, and an office tower went up — clustering potential riders.

Control costs and plan well: Critics often decry the cost of building a rail system. Rail in Phoenix was estimated to cost $43 million originally for 20 miles. The actual expense: $70 million.

Summit tries to drum up support for light rail in Pinellas County 03/22/10 [Last modified: Monday, March 22, 2010 11:23pm]
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