Mention "light rail," and many locals will picture the New York City subway, D.C.'s Metro or the El in Chicago. But those older, densely populated cities don't offer a useful comparison for the Tampa Bay area.
This week, the mayors of Tampa and Clearwater will join elected officials from St. Petersburg and Pinellas County on a three-day tour of Charlotte, N.C., Dallas and Denver, sprawling cities that grew up with the automobile but have been adding electric commuter trains.
Why the trip?
Officials who want light rail for the bay area are closely following the blueprint provided by these places. Each of these cities drew up its plans with lots of public input, then launched a campaign to persuade voters to approve a sales tax for rail.
Some Tampa Bay leaders hope to do the same thing over the next two years.
"There may not be cheap gas again in our lifetime. Almost every other major metropolitan area in the country has embarked on rail," said Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio. "There's no substitute for seeing it in person."
The entourage on the Wednesday-to-Friday trip includes some high-profile proponents of rail — Iorio, Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard and Pinellas County Commissioner Ronnie Duncan — as well as others from the seven-county Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority. That includes St. Petersburg City Council member Jeff Danner, state transportation official Don Skelton and governor's appointees like former Buccaneer linebacker Shelton Quarles.
They want to see the nuts and bolts of how trains link up with buses, shuttles and park-and-ride lots in these cities, and also pick the brains of politicians, transit officials and business leaders who made it happen.
"It's good to see systems that work, but more important to talk to individuals about how they got there," said Danner. "How many times did they fail at referendums before they got the funding?"
Train to Tampa
TBARTA is a 1-year-old regional authority with a bureaucratic name, and most bay area residents have never heard of it. But it's working with the Florida Department of Transportation to update rail plans that have collected dust for years. Local officials have envisioned:
• A rail line along I-275 linking the downtowns of St. Petersburg and Tampa, the Gateway and WestShore districts and Tampa International Airport.
• A line following a CSX railroad corridor from Tropicana Field through Pinellas Park, Largo, downtown Clearwater, Oldsmar, Westchase and TIA.
• Trains from downtown Tampa to the University of South Florida district, South Tampa and Brandon, eventually extending as far as Brooksville, Lakeland and Sarasota.
• Express buses from St. Petersburg to the beaches and Bradenton, and up U.S. 19 to west Pasco and Spring Hill.
However, plans like this have repeatedly died from a lack of money and political support.
The argument against rail in Tampa Bay goes like this: Few locals ride transit now. The public is sick of taxes. We don't have a big, dominant downtown. The benefits of rail are exaggerated. No one will walk to a final destination in our stifling heat.
Iorio, Duncan, Hibbard and other rail boosters counter with these arguments:
The time is right. $4-a-gallon gas is causing a surge in transit riders here and nationwide. We'll need rail to compete with other cities for good jobs.
The customers are there. People will use a system that takes them to our big job centers. Our population density is similar to other cities that have rail.
Other options are worse. It'll drive redevelopment in neglected places that could use it. We're already spending a fortune to widen roads. And there's the cost of doing nothing, with traffic expected to get worse as the population grows.
The cities that the TBARTA delegation is visiting have recently been through bruising political battles over rail.
"These are cities that have done this in the last 10 years. The elected officials they'll meet with are still fresh from the fight," said Cassandra Ecker, project manager for TBARTA's regional mass transit plan. "They can tell us where the pitfalls are."
The game plan
In Charlotte, they'll ride the brand new LYNX Blue Line, powered by 10 miles of overhead electric lines that plow south from downtown high-rises into blue-collar suburbs where the line has sparked $1-billion worth of development astride the right of way. It's fueled by a half-cent sales tax, a pot of money Charlotte used to tap into federal funds.
In Dallas, they'll see a 45-mile light rail network slated to double in size. In Denver, suburban high-rise condos whose owners can walk to a station and be downtown in 15 minutes.
Duncan and Hibbard see similar potential on Pinellas County's little-used rail corridor.
"A lot of the surrounding properties are either deteriorating or vacant," Hibbard said. "We'll continue to grow whether we like it or not, but you can have the density just around those stations rather than spread out across the entire metro area."
Denver and Dallas leaders have repeatedly given Tampa Bay officials this advice: To persuade voters to tax themselves for trains — even a half-penny tax — show them exactly what they'd get. Get their opinions and create a polished plan showing routes, stations, links to shuttles. Run TV ads paid for by the business sector. Pass out pamphlets with maps and schedules.
"At the end of the day, what won the election was the map," said Cal Marsella, transit director in Denver, where residents raised their sales tax in 2004 to lay down another 119 miles of rail. Two previous referendums went down in flames at the ballot box. "People want to know what they're going to get, when they're going to get it, what it's going to cost," he said.
TBARTA has started laying the groundwork for this, holding 90 community meetings and "visioning workshops" in seven counties. It will hold more public forums in July and August as it sharpens its plans. It will have an initial plan to show people by the end of the year.
Although TBARTA has discussed a seven-county referendum, a more likely scenario may be a vote in Pinellas and Hillsborough at the same time. Another big hurdle is that county commissioners would have to put it on the ballot.
No matter what, Iorio and others who want a vote on rail don't think they'll be ready until 2010. There's too much work left to do.
Mike Brassfield can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3435.