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Hillsborough rail plan is still taking shape

TAMPA — Advocates for a proposed penny sales tax increase on the Nov. 2 ballot have said one thing above all others: This is not just about rail.

But a new light rail system is the biggest part of a transportation tax package that also would double the public bus fleet and pay for roads. Supporters hope it will provide the first spokes in what one day will be a rail network linking neighboring counties.

"It is time for this region to focus on a real investment in mass transit," Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio wrote in a 2006 white paper that reignited a debate that began a generation ago and led to next month's vote. "At issue is how we want our city and our region to grow over the coming decades."

Despite its starring role in the referendum, the light rail piece requires voters to take a leap of faith that it will work as sold. It comes with few firm specifics, undetermined routes and educated guesses for cost and ridership.

So the ballot initiative essentially poses two questions to voters: Do they think it's time for rail? And do they trust their leaders to build it in a way that serves them well and at a reasonable price?

"We're going to drive hard bargains," said Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe, a leading promoter. "Otherwise we're all going to pay."

• • •

Members of the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit board of directors Monday will hear an overview of rail options in two initial corridors. HART, which runs the county's bus system, would run the railway.

A staff analysis released last week includes information about potential routes, their projected costs and expected ridership. All of it is subject to change and, if other rail projects around the country are an indication, much of it will. No decisions are planned until after the election.

This has been a leading line of attack for rail critics.

"A bank wouldn't approve a loan without a business plan," said Karen Jaroch, a spokeswoman for NoTaxForTrack.com. "And that's what they're asking the voters of Hillsborough County to do."

HART officials say they are simply following a process used in other rail communities. They ultimately hope to win support from the federal government, which would help pay as much as 50 percent of the construction cost, and the state, from which HART hopes to get another 25 percent.

That requires some show of support from the community that it is willing to pay the rest.

Ultimately, HART hopes to expand the system to Brandon, South Tampa and Westchase, and link it to other counties. Planners estimate about 43 percent of the sales tax increase would go toward rail, both to build and run it.

For now, HART is charting the first two legs.

One would be a north-south line, connecting downtown Tampa, the University of South Florida and New Tampa. The other would be east-west, to the West Shore business district and Tampa International Airport.

In the north-south corridor, HART has analyzed two specific paths after discarding others.

One would run immediately east of and adjacent to Interstate 275 before cutting over at Busch Boulevard or Fowler Avenue to the USF medical complex. It would head north toward Cross Creek Boulevard. Latest projected cost: about $1.7 billion. Projected 2035 ridership: 16,500 daily, more if it crosses Fowler.

The other would primarily use existing CSX freight lines through east Tampa to USF, then follow the same path as the other line north. Projected cost: about $1.5 billion. HART included an estimate that it could cost another $679 million to acquire the rail line from CSX. Projected ridership: 16,750-19,500.

Some rail advocates fear an interstate path would not attract the sort of redevelopment seen along rail lines built in other cities. But planners say redevelopment would happen near stops.

Count Seminole Heights resident Sue Long among those who see development potential near an interstate-based rail line.

Besides providing a convenient travel option to places north and south, Long thinks rail could finally drive a turnaround of Nebraska Avenue, with its mix of used car lots and cheap motels that draw prostitution stings.

Besides, "by the time I drive over to the other route, I could be where I'm going by the time I get there," Long said.

That other route runs along some of the poorest neighborhoods in East Tampa, many of them inhabited by minorities and, according to the HART analysis, concentrations of people who don't have cars.

"My concern primarily is that the best service is provided for those who really need the service," said W. James Favorite, pastor of Beulah Baptist Institutional Church who is working with Moving Hillsborough Forward, a group promoting the tax.

Similarly, two paths identified in the east-west corridor have attracted backers and detractors.

Some residents along Cypress Street in West Tampa aren't keen about a proposal to connect downtown, the West Shore business district and Tampa International Airport with light rail down their street. Projected cost of that route: about $950 million. Projected ridership: 4,250.

HART said it heard stronger support for a route in the median of I-275 to West Shore Boulevard The agency is still exploring running the line just north of the Interstate to help spur redevelopment along parallel Main Street. Projected cost: about $1.1 billion. Projected ridership: 6,250.

• • •

The analysis by HART carries several asterisks.

Travel time estimates are slow. HART officials predict light rail trains would average speeds of about 20 mph, though the cars are capable of about 50 mph. Much of that is due to street crossings, said Mary Shavalier, HART's planning chief.

While some other cities employ technology that stops car traffic when trains cross streets, Shavalier says that may not be possible for some roads.

HART estimates it would take 58 minutes to travel the 19-mile CSX path from downtown to North Tampa. The interstate route, at about 17 miles, shaves about six minutes from that.

Travel times along the east-west route are estimated at 21-26 minutes, faster along the Interstate, for a roughly 9-mile trip.

Ray Chiaramonte, executive director of the Hillsborough County Metropolitan Planning Organization, says this is an important consideration. Along with spurring redevelopment, rail must be convenient for riders, particularly if the system expands into other counties.

"It needs to serve the aspect of being a spine for a regional transportation system," he said.

Trains going downtown would meet at a new station near I-275 and I-4. The station would also serve a planned high-speed rail line between Tampa and Orlando that is unrelated to this vote.

But transit officials would like to see at least one of the light rail lines travel farther into downtown to activity centers such as Channelside and the St. Pete Times Forum. Getting it through downtown may require elevated tracks in places.

Likewise, planners aren't sure yet how the train would cross the Hillsborough River heading west from downtown. And they aren't sure whether commuters would have to transfer trains, or be able to stay on the same train to travel from USF to West Shore.

Planners initially thought they might build the north-south line first, with an opening date around 2018. Now they are considering whether to build the shorter east-west route first.

How all that affects cost and ridership projections remains to be seen.

"It's the problem everybody faces about needing a crystal ball," said Bob Clifford, director of the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority.

Times researcher John Martin and staff writer Janet Zink contributed to this report. Bill Varian can be reached at (813) 226-3387 or varian@sptimes.com.

Hillsborough rail plan is still taking shape 10/16/10 [Last modified: Sunday, October 17, 2010 12:01am]

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