Saturday, September 22, 2018
Transportation

FDOT buys land for future transportation hub in Tampa's busy West Shore area

TAMPA — A transportation hub for rail and buses could one day rise in the West Shore area where Charley's Steakhouse and the Doubletree by Hilton Tampa Airport currently stand.

The Florida Department of Transportation announced Tuesday that it recently closed on the steak house and hotel property. The agency paid $45 million for the nearly 9 acres. But it will be at least two years before any construction begins.

The FDOT has been pining for the property for several years, but was forced to back off in early 2014 when the landowner, GE Capital, suddenly doubled the price. But GE sold that parcel to the Blackstone Group several months ago.

Property deed records show a sale went through in August for nearly $37 million. The FDOT ended up paying $8 million more than what Blackstone paid, an increase of 22 percent.

"An intermodal center will be the linchpin for a seamless transit network in, around and through the West Shore Business District," Paul Steinman, DOT secretary for the Tampa Bay region, said in a statement.

Transit advocate and former County Commissioner Mark Sharpe said the FDOT's investment shows the agency is stepping up as "a solid, dependable partner" in transit — not just roads.

"I think that FDOT recognizes the importance of transit as it works together with cars and … automated vehicle technology," Sharpe said. "It all has to work together."

The center, once constructed, will be used as a hub for transit to Tampa International Airport, as a depot for Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority buses and as a station if a light rail or bus rapid transit system were to connect Pinellas and Hillsborough counties in the future.

Airport CEO Joe Lopano called the move "a giant step in the right direction."

"A multimodal center near the airport that connects us to the region … has always been a key part of our vision for the future of Tampa International," Lopano said. "Many more pieces still need to fall into place to make that vision a reality, but this is a critical component."

However, FDOT spokeswoman Kris Carson said it will be at least two years until any action is taken. Charley's Steakhouse and the Doubletree will continue to operate during that time, and potentially even longer.

That two-year period is tied to a prediction of how long it will take the FDOT to complete a study with Hillsborough's transit authority evaluating different options, including light rail and converting existing CSX freight tracks to commuter rail.

"If, in two years, we're not ready yet in terms of our transit study, then it could continue to operate as what it is right now," Carson said.

Ann Kulig, executive director of the Westshore Alliance, said the land purchase is still an exciting step, even though it will be some time before the center is actually built.

"It gives people, especially folks in the business and development communities, some certainty about future transportation and transit options in West Shore," Kulig said. "Even though it's some years off before they officially build anything, I think it's important people understand the plans are in place to move forward when our community is ready to move forward with improved transit."

However, bringing transit to the area has proved difficult after voters in both Hillsborough and Pinellas quashed referendums in the past five years that would raise money for light rail and improved bus systems.

Hillsborough could take a second swing at a sales tax referendum next year if county commissioners vote to put a half-cent transportation sales tax on the November 2016 ballot.

The tax could help pay for a transit system connecting downtown Tampa to Tampa International Airport. The Westshore Multimodal Center could become a part of that plan. But even if approved, it will be some time before any of those projects are in the ground and operating.

"Transportation is like traffic at 5 o'clock in the afternoon when you're in gridlock," Sharpe said. "Nothing moves fast in transportation."

Contact Caitlin Johnston at [email protected] or (813) 226-3401. Follow @cljohnst.

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