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Light rail study will help decide which segment in Tampa to build first

TAMPA — Which segment of a proposed light rail line should be built first?

Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio says a leg from downtown to the University of South Florida should be the top priority.

Others advocate for a line connecting downtown to the West Shore business district.

A $1.5 million study recently approved by the board of the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority will help answer the question.

Iorio believes the study will make her case.

"You're not bringing in the commuters if you focus on downtown to West Shore," she said. "It makes very good sense to have it as the second route. But I can't imagine any study would come back and say it's the very first link."

The analysis is a required next step in applying for federal funding for the project, said David Armijo, chief executive of Hillsborough Area Regional Transit.

PB Americas will update previous studies, completed in 2002, that cost about $15 million.

Plans initially called for only re-examining a 13.5-mile connection between downtown and USF that largely runs along existing CSX tracks with the assumption that portion of the line would be completed first.

That's because HART already moves about 2 million people a year between downtown and the USF area on its most widely used bus routes, Armijo said.

"It's a huge number," he said. "If you go west, it's maybe half of that."

But some business owners pushed to expand the study, saying the 4.7-mile section between downtown and West Shore should have priority.

The West Tampa Chamber of Commerce board voted to encourage HART to look at that segment, saying it would benefit the area.

"Everyone talks about light rail being a catalyst for redevelopment," said Ed Turanchik, a developer and member of the chamber's board.

"If you really want to see that happen, the chamber thinks the downtown-to-West Shore line is going to have the greatest opportunity for redevelopment to occur."

Likely riders of the line would be people commuting to jobs downtown and in the West Shore business district, and visitors to the Tampa Convention Center downtown staying in West Shore hotels, he said.

Ron Rotella, executive director of the Westshore Alliance, said his organization doesn't have a preference regarding which segment should go first.

"It ought to be the one that has the chance of being most successful," he said.

But he notes that if Florida receives economic stimulus money to build high-speed rail between Tampa and Orlando, it would bolster the need for the downtown to West Shore link.

"If we're going to have connections from the Orlando airport to Disney World, down Interstate 4 to Tampa, it almost begs the question: Shouldn't you be looking at a connection from downtown into Tampa International Airport?" he said.

Mark Sharpe, a county commissioner and HART board member, said ultimately it won't matter which line is built first.

"It all works together," he said.

Among other things, the analysis will look at potential ridership and how to get people from rail stations to places such as Moffitt Cancer Center and Busch Gardens, Armijo said.

The study also will look at route options, such as heading north up Florida Avenue instead of following existing CSX tracks, and west along the Interstate 275 median instead of Cypress Street.

At the request of U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, the House this week approved $300,000 in its appropriations bill to help pay for the study.

Hillsborough County voters likely will be asked to consider a sales tax in November 2010 to help pay for the line. Early estimates put the cost of construction at $70 million a mile.

Janet Zink can be reached at jzink@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3401.

Light rail study will help decide which segment in Tampa to build first 07/25/09 [Last modified: Saturday, July 25, 2009 11:36pm]
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