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After lagging on rapid rail transit, Pinellas now at full throttle.

ST. PETERSBURG — Mayor Bill Foster said he was quite excited and supportive when, in January, Florida won $1.25 billion in federal aid to build a high-speed rail line from Tampa to Orlando.

Yet Foster said he felt a slight pang for the city he had just started governing, St. Petersburg.

"I was taken aback," Foster said. "Originally, the high-speed rail line was supposed to link Orlando and St. Petersburg. But now, St. Petersburg was nowhere in sight. Somewhere along the line, we fell off the radar."

In the past decade, that's been the rub about Pinellas County. Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio pushed for rail immediately upon taking office in 2003. Pinellas had no such prominent champion. As high-speed rail landed in Tampa, St. Petersburg was hardly mentioned. Hillsborough voters will go to the polls in November to decide whether to build a light rail system. Pinellas voters won't.

But while a bullet train gave Foster transit envy, it also fueled efforts in Pinellas to play catchup. And though it may not appear obvious to the public watching rail developments in Hillsborough, things are beginning to move quickly in Pinellas.

"County leaders know where they're going now," said Bob Clifford, executive director of the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority. "They are clearly moving. High-speed rail is certainly an impetus, making it more urgent, but they were already moving in this direction."

That's saying something coming from Clifford, who last summer told a group of Pinellas officials that he didn't even know whom to talk to about transit.

"In every other county, I can tell you what their priorities are," Clifford said then. "I'm not sure in Pinellas County."

Much changed after Clifford's diagnosis. Even before the high-speed rail announcement, the county made serious moves toward rail.

• In September, a poll of 500 registered county voters conducted by the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority showed that 66 percent favor a commuter rail system, and 80 percent favor one linking to Hillsborough.

• In December, the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority included light rail in its 10-year plan, the first time the bus agency had ever done so. The proposed $2.67 billion system includes a 26-mile stretch between St. Petersburg and Clearwater and a link to the Gateway area and over the Howard Frankland Bridge to Tampa.

• In January, the PSTA approved $4 million to study alternatives for rail in Pinellas County. The study, which should begin next month and take 18 to 24 months to complete, will help officials determine where the routes will be, how much rail will cost, what type of rail will be used, and when it can be done.

"We're doing a heck of a lot," said Commissioner Ken Welch. "We're doing this differently than Hillsborough. We're smaller geographically, but we have 24 municipalities, so we need a greater degree of coordination."

Welch will sit on a rail advisory committee that begins meeting in July. Joining him will be Commissioner Karen Seel, Largo Vice Mayor Harriet Crozier, Indian Rocks Mayor R.B. Johnson, St. Petersburg City Council member Jeff Danner, and Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard. They will consider the best options to link up to Tampa and, more important, where it goes after entering Pinellas and the Gateway area.

Assuming that the two legs now under consideration — one to Clearwater, one to St. Petersburg's downtown — won't be built at the same time, deciding which one goes first might be a divisive issue.

"I'm hoping that won't be the case," said Johnson, who is also chairman of the PSTA. "We've tried to make sure this isn't a parochial issue."

A new stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays could become a crucial part of which route gets built first. The club's contract with St. Petersburg has it playing ball at Tropicana Field through 2027, but most speculate the team would leave before then if a new stadium isn't built first.

A sales tax initiative that could be voted on in 2011 or 2012 could help finance a stadium that, like Target Field in Minneapolis, doubles as a rail station, Foster said.

But until the study is done in 2011, it won't be certain when, where, and how rail gets built in Pinellas.

"This next year and a half will be the most important period this county has ever had in determining its transit future," Johnson said. "We are entering that new and exciting phase we've all been waiting for."

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

After lagging on rapid rail transit, Pinellas now at full throttle. 05/29/10 [Last modified: Saturday, May 29, 2010 11:14pm]
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