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Regional approach for light rail just talk for now

TAMPA — The Nov. 2 transit tax defeat in Hillsborough County has some Tampa Bay political leaders suggesting a regional approach to mass transit may be the ticket.

But that's all that's happening right now — talk.

Any notion of creating a regional transit system, particularly one that includes passenger rail, faces several major obstacles that will be difficult to resolve in the near term. There is reluctance on the part of Hillsborough County commissioners to reprise an issue voters rejected by a margin of 16 percentage points just weeks ago.

"The message sent by the voters was loud and clear," said Hills­borough Commissioner Ken Hagan, who formed a task force that recommended the transit tax question. "I cannot see the board initiating another referendum any time soon."

Some Pasco County commissioners suggested during a recent workshop that a three-county cheerleading effort to promote rail might meet with success. A task force in Pinellas County also voted for a regional approach.

Officials with the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transit Authority have said they intend to step up talks with CSX, the freight line company, about using its tracks for regional passenger rail.

"We need to do it not as one county but as a region," Pasco Commissioner Ann Hildebrand, a member of the TBARTA board, said at its most recent meeting. "We need to strike while the iron's hot."

But there are several reasons, beyond reticence among Hillsborough's political leadership, that the iron may cool for a bit.

TBARTA, created in 2007 by the Legislature to chart Tampa Bay's transportation future as a region, would be the logical choice to oversee such an effort. But it has no authority to impose taxes or seek permission from voters to do so.

The incoming legislative leadership in Florida, not to mention Gov.-elect Rick Scott, has made clear it holds a dim view of any tax-raising talk, despite a looming state budget deficit.

"There's absolutely no appetite under the current climate to give TBARTA taxing authority," said state Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, a 16-year veteran of the Legislature who cosponsored the bill that created the agency.

Pinellas County Commissioner Karen Seel, chairwoman of the commission's transportation task force and another member of TBARTA, said the three counties could hold separate sales tax referendums simultaneously. They could execute agreements among them spelling out how the proceeds would be spent.

She acknowledged that the approach depends on how the city of Tampa and Hillsborough County choose to proceed. And there's this: What if one or two of the counties vote no?

Further, Hillsborough County's elected leaders debated transit for more than 20 years. Nearly four years of analysis and horse-trading took place over the specific plan that emerged after Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio re­ignited the discussion in 2006.

Imagine spreading that debate over multiple counties and cities not known for their bonhomie.

"I think it's great that, in the aftermath of this election, people have some enthusiasm for moving forward," Iorio said. "It's important that we lay out collectively what it is that we're trying to achieve. What is the real goal?"

The Hillsborough County plan called for building nearly 30 miles of light rail lines in the near term, mostly serving urban residents. More than half of the proceeds from a proposed 1-cent sales tax increase also would have gone toward doubling the bus fleet and roadway construction in outlying areas.

In addition to giving commuters an option to driving, light rail, with its frequent stops and stations, was pitched as something that would propel redevelopment in blighted urban areas. In other words, it would serve as a sprawl suppressant.

Iorio said she believes it was the right plan pitched at the wrong time. She said a more regional approach would likely utilize commuter rail — more traditional passenger cars pulled by a diesel engine covering longer distances with fewer stops.

Hillsborough's light rail plan considered running one passenger line beside existing CSX freight tracks. The company warned Hillsborough County transit officials that space buffers required for safety could make that option costly.

CSX also expressed a desire to discuss the sale or lease of its railway corridors on a regional basis, rather than in smaller, county-by-county segments. The board of TBARTA heard a presentation from CSX in August, but discussions thus far have not progressed beyond that.

A spokesman for the company said its priority is ensuring it retains the ability to move freight safely, that it is fairly compensated and is not held liable for problems caused by sharing space with passenger trains.

"While our focus is on the safe, efficient and environmentally friendly movement of freight to, from and within Florida, we remain committed to working with regional leaders to consider transportation solutions for Tampa Bay commuters," said Gary Sease, director of corporate communications for CSX.

A poll of Hillsborough County voters found that concern about paying more in taxes during a down economy was the top reason why the measure was defeated. It also showed many of those same voters consider transportation an ongoing concern.

With that in mind, TBARTA officials say they are trying to move ahead in seeking solutions to congestion. That means advocating to ensure the region continues to receive money for widening Interstate 275 and exploring the possibility of creating high-occupancy vehicle lanes.

And it means continuing to look at transit, including rail.

"I think we are in our infancy talking to all our partners," said Ronnie Duncan, chairman of TBARTA. "What we can't do is do nothing. Otherwise, 10 years from today, we won't be any further along."

Bill Varian can be reached at (813) 226-3387 or varian@sptimes.com.

Regional approach for light rail just talk for now 11/26/10 [Last modified: Friday, November 26, 2010 10:45pm]

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