Sunday, February 25, 2018
Transportation

Light rail could be a game changer for Largo

When light rail gets discussed around Tampa Bay, the focus tends to be on the St. Petersburg and Tampa downtowns, Tampa International Airport and the region's major-league baseball stadium, wherever that might end up.

But if you take another look at the mass transit plan that Pinellas County will vote on in November, something else becomes apparent. Rail would be a huge game changer for Tampa Bay's fourth-largest city: Largo.

People who know Largo know its charms — its leafy neighborhoods, its thriving cultural center, its much-loved parks. But it is largely known as a featureless swath of strip malls, drive-throughs and mobile home parks in the middle of Pinellas County, indistinguishable from the sprawl surrounding it.

The proposed passenger rail route would run east-west through the heart of Largo, stopping at four stations in the city. That dovetails perfectly with Largo's little-known plans to grow upward. Officials envision high-rise development blossoming around a couple of the rail stations.

"If this happens," Largo Mayor Pat Gerard said, "it's going to change the whole city."

On Nov. 4, Pinellas voters will decide whether the Greenlight Pinellas plan for expanded countywide bus service and light rail is worth paying an extra penny on the dollar in sales taxes.

Meanwhile, Largo voters will have some questions to ponder that are specific to Largo.

The commuter rail line would run along 5 miles of East Bay Drive/Roosevelt Boulevard. So where exactly would the tracks go? How would that affect traffic on a busy road that sees more than 50,000 vehicles a day?

"Where are you going to put it?" asked Curtis Holmes, a Largo city commissioner. "All the maps show it running down East Bay and Roosevelt. How do they propose doing that? We're not going to do eminent domain on all the parcels along the sides. The drawings show it running down the middle of the street. And when the train stops, you're going to stop two lanes of traffic just to get on the sidewalk? You can't do that. That's just unsafe."

While the general route is mapped out, at this stage there are no final answers about the specific location of each length of track. Those more detailed decisions would come later, only after a "yes" vote from the public on Nov. 4.

In any case, transit officials sound confident that a rail line through Largo wouldn't be too disruptive for cars. They point to places like Denver and Portland, where commuter trains run in reserved lanes on surface streets.

In Largo, it's possible that a rail line could run along the road's median for miles at a time before pulling into stations alongside the road, officials say. It also could be elevated above some intersections.

"You could run it in the median. You could run it on the side. You could take up a travel lane, but you don't have to," said Cassandra Borchers, chief development officer for the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority. "You're not running a freight locomotive. It's a lighter vehicle that can run right next to traffic, in an exclusive lane."

"I think the train is going to have to go down the middle," said Largo Commissioner Harriet Crozier, long involved in transportation issues.

The tracks wouldn't open until 2024.

The No Tax for Tracks anti-rail group is active in Largo, holding meetings and pointing out that few Pinellas residents currently use mass transit. The PSTA estimates that the average Largo homeowner would pay an additional $40 in taxes per year under the plan, which would eliminate the property tax PSTA now levies on county property owners and replace it with a 1-cent sales tax.

But Largo's political leaders overwhelmingly support Greenlight Pinellas, excited about the potential for development. On a seven-member City Commission, Holmes recently cast the sole vote against endorsing the plan.

"Ten years down the line, the basic blueprint shows the rail coming through Largo, with several stops," said Tom Morrissette, president of the Central Pinellas Chamber of Commerce. "From a historical standpoint, based on what's happened in other cities, the stops become economic hotbeds in and of themselves because they accumulate people."

Officials and business leaders also think the proposed rail line would irreversibly link Largo to the jobs-rich Gateway area, home to coveted employers like Tech Data and Raymond James. If rail crossed the Howard Frankland Bridge, Largo also would be linked to West Shore in Tampa, another key employment center.

Largo has medical jobs and professional jobs, but it also has an abundance of low-paying jobs in retail and customer service. The biggest developer in the city right now is Walmart, which is opening three new stores there. Last year, a city survey found that Largo's residents see it as an affordable place to live, but lacking good jobs.

The rail route would run 24 miles from downtown St. Petersburg along Interstate 275 north to Pinellas Park and the Gateway area, west through Largo and north along a CSX railroad freight corridor to downtown Clearwater, where a trolley could take riders to the beach.

Different transportation modes have always driven development in Pinellas. After all, St. Petersburg was named by a Russian who built the first railroad line into the Pinellas peninsula. With the rise of the automobile, Largo's citrus groves got carved into auto-centric subdivisions.

Rail could hit the reset button.

"It would be transformational," said Carol Stricklin, Largo's community development director.

Largo's long-term strategic plan calls for steering high-rise development into just a few locations to reduce sprawl. Under the Greenlight Pinellas plan, two of those spots would host rail stations. One is where U.S. 19 crosses East Bay/Roosevelt. The other is downtown Largo, which would be at the western end of Largo's commuter tracks.

"The plan anticipates five- and six-story buildings," Stricklin said. "There is an enormous potential for redevelopment, and rail would help the process along."

Mike Brassfield can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. Follow him on Twitter @MikeBrassfield.

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