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High-speed rail stop at Tampa airport? No chance, officials say

TAMPA — When voters rejected a penny sales tax hike for transit in November, they killed a critical link between Tampa International Airport and a planned high-speed rail station downtown.

The tax would have paid for a light-rail line between the downtown station and the airport. With the initiative's defeat, business leaders are looking for ways to keep that connection alive without new taxes to pay for it.

One possible solution would be to just run the high-speed rail line to Tampa's airport, either stopping downtown or bypassing it. And with Gov.-elect Rick Scott hitting the pause button on the project while he seeks more analysis, would it not make sense to give that notion a harder look?

The answer, from supporters and overseers of the high-speed rail project: an emphatic no, no and, what part of no don't you understand?

The state already has the land for tracks and stations on the route as planned, but not to take it to the airport. No engineering or environmental analysis has been performed on an airport extension, which would present several high-cost technical challenges.

"Where does the money come from?" asked Florida Department of Transportation spokesman Dick Kane rhetorically.

Further, Florida has secured roughly $2.4 billion in pledged federal support for high-speed rail largely because construction can begin almost immediately. The money was awarded as a stimulus to help the economy in the near term.

"There's just so many problems with taking it to the airport that it would push high-speed rail back a decade," Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe said. "The reason we got the federal money is because it's shovel ready."

• • •

The location of Tampa's high-speed rail stop has been debated since planning for the system began more than 20 years ago. As far back as 2003, when the route was being finalized, some Hillsborough County commissioners sounded the alarm that there were no plans for an airport stop in Tampa.

The first phase of the system would begin at Orlando International Airport, with a stop at Disney World before racing west. It would end in downtown Tampa, with public buses as the only mass transit connection to the airport and other destinations.

Then-Commissioner Jim Norman worried aloud during a January 2003 meeting that high-speed rail would eventually travel to the Pinellas County beaches, giving riders no reason to get off in Tampa. The rail line would be a boon to the Orlando airport, the opposite for Tampa's.

"I see the economics of our tourism really suffering here if we do not tie our airport to phase one," Norman said then.

His solution was to have the federal and possibly state government pay for a light-rail link to the airport from the downtown high-speed rail station. He opposed November's ballot question asking local taxpayers to pay for it.

As recently as this summer, Tampa City Councilwoman Mary Mulhern led an unsuccessful late push to study the potential for a high-speed rail stop at Tampa International Airport.

"If we've never studied that route from downtown to the airport, how do we know it's not feasible?" she asked.

Tampa International officials say the airport connection has been looked at in general terms. It presents some serious initial challenges, they said.

The airport includes a cross-hatching of taxiways surrounded by a spaghetti-like highway network that make approaching the site by rail a challenge. A proposed light-rail stop at the airport was included as part of November's initiative only after it became more likely that high-speed rail was coming to Tampa along with the federal money to pay for it.

Light-rail lines near the airport were projected to be the costliest parts of the system, requiring elevated tracks to cross surrounding highways.

Assuming that the system will one day get built, squeezing another set of tracks in for high-speed rail could involve realigning taxiways used by planes.

"We don't know if that's even possible," said John Wheat, the airport's interim director.

Unlike light rail, high-speed trains require tracks without sharp bends or steep elevation changes. And those are just some of the challenges at the airport.

Getting to the airport would require significant purchases of land, engineering and environmental studies.

Theoretically, trains could run on tracks along Interstate 275 when it is widened, but that work is not scheduled to be completed for years.

"I don't know how often it can be stated, but apparently not enough," said Ed Turanchik, a candidate for Tampa mayor and longtime transit advocate who was recently director of communications for the high-speed rail project. "There's no envelope in which to build it, not even to West Shore (business district)."

He has made the continued push for a local rail network a top plank of his mayoral campaign. In the meantime, public and private solutions will emerge to get high-speed rail passengers where they want to go when they get off the train in Tampa, he said.

• • •

The business interest in a downtown-to-airport transit connection is partly driven by a belief in the economic development potential in between. Much of that is lost with high-speed rail because it would not have stops along the way.

Stuart Rogel, president and chief executive officer of the Tampa Bay Partnership, the regional business booster that strongly supported the November transit initiative, said business owners should take heart.

The high-speed rail line will do much to promote Central Florida as a super-region of shared development interests. And while Orlando will have a stop at its airport, the train will not run to its downtown.

"That's a distinguisher, or advantage, for us," Rogel said.

U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, said the high-speed rail station should be downtown, where the redevelopment potential is greatest.

"Convenient connections should be constructed to the airport, (University of South Florida), the Port of Tampa, the beaches and Pinellas County," she said in a statement.

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Bill Varian can be reached at (813) 226-3387 or varian@sptimes.com.

High-speed rail stop at Tampa airport? No chance, officials say 12/24/10 [Last modified: Saturday, December 25, 2010 11:18am]
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