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Study offers look into reality of light rail in Hillsborough

TAMPA — Details of a light-rail line in Hillsborough County are emerging, with a total price tag for construction coming in at about $2 billion.

Voters in November will consider a 1-cent sales tax to pay for the project.

The Hillsborough Area Regional Transit board on Monday released the results of a study of tracks connecting Cross Creek Boulevard in north Hillsborough County to downtown, and downtown to Tampa International Airport.

The Cross Creek-downtown line would cost between $1.3 billion and $1.5 billion to build and between $19.7 million and $22 million a year to operate, depending on which route is selected. The construction prices do not include the cost of acquiring CSX tracks, which could be necessary.

Possible northbound routes generally include heading up Interstate 275 to Busch Boulevard or Fowler Avenue and then up 30th Street to Bruce B. Downs Boulevard, ending at Cross Creek Boulevard; or following existing CSX tracks through Ybor City to 30th Street.

Construction of the line connecting downtown to Tampa International Airport would cost between $475 million and $725 million to build and $6.25 million and $6.75 million a year to operate.

To get to the airport, the options include heading down Cass or Cypress streets to Trask Street, then traveling west along Spruce Street to TIA; or following I-275 to Lois Avenue to reach Cypress.

If voters approve the 1-cent sales tax, it would generate about $188 million a year, with about 43 percent of that money going to rail. The rest would pay for expanded bus service and road improvements.

Plans call for applying for federal funds to help pay for the rail line. But Tampa is competing with about a dozen other cities for mass transit funding, and those cities all bring local money to the table, said Jeff Boothe, a consultant working for HART.

"That's why the referendum in November is so key," he told board members Monday.

Other study results show:

• Traveling by light rail during peak traffic from downtown to Cross Creek would take between 52 and 58 minutes, depending on which route is used. Traveling by car would take about 62 minutes. The estimates assume a 48 percent projected population increase for Hillsborough County and the surrounding area by 2035.

• Traveling from downtown to the airport by rail would take 21 to 26 minutes, depending on the final rail alignments. Traveling by car would take 18 minutes.

• Light rail ridership, based on 2035 population figures, would be between 16,500 and 19,500 trips a day between Cross Creek and downtown, and 4,250 and 6,250 between downtown and the airport.

Ridership figures do not include passengers who might catch a local train after reaching downtown Tampa from Lakeland or Orlando via high-speed rail. Federal stimulus money is being used to pay for the bullet train, which should be in operation by 2015.

• Bus rapid transit, a technology that allows buses to travel more quickly than traditional buses, would be much less expensive to build and operate than light rail, but attract fewer riders.

• The line connecting Cross Creek to downtown will have 16 to 19 stations; the line between downtown and the airport would have nine.

The HART board is scheduled to make a final decision on routes in November, after the referendum on the sales tax.

"This has always concerned me," board member Rose Ferlita said. It's hard to encourage voters to approve the tax without providing more details on funding and where the tracks will go, she said.

"It gives people a lot of reason for pause," she said. "I'm hoping that won't impact this initiative in a negative way."

In a statement issued after the HART meeting, David Singer, who's chairing the Moving Hillsborough Forward campaign in support of the sales tax, said it's more important to get the plan right than finish it quickly.

"The rail routes have been narrowed down to a few clear choices already," he said, adding that passage of the tax will create thousands of jobs, lead to better bus service and roads, and economic development.

"This process takes time and careful consideration," he said. "Let the experts do their job."

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

Study offers look into reality of light rail in Hillsborough 08/16/10 [Last modified: Monday, August 16, 2010 10:57pm]
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