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Tampa Bay rail advocates scramble for ways to connect with proposed high-speed line

TAMPA — The $1.25 billion in federal stimulus money that will help pay for a high-speed rail line from Tampa to Orlando has stirred visions of Disney visitors adding a trip to Pinellas beaches and Tampa residents riding the rail to Orlando, perhaps for a concert at the House of Blues.

But how will people get from their homes to the downtown Tampa station? And how will out-of-town travelers get from the station to the beaches?

Since 2007, the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority, which encompasses seven counties, has been planning a network of buses and light rail stretching from Citrus to Sarasota counties.

Those plans, however, depend on finding money to pay for them, possibly with new sales taxes. And winning voter approval for taxes will be difficult in a struggling economy.

Also, even if the taxes get the nod, some local light rail lines will take decades to complete. The most advanced proposal — a rail line connecting the University of South Florida to the West Shore business district — wouldn't be finished at least until 2018, three years after the bullet train is supposed to start running. Work on a light rail line linking Hillsborough and Pinellas counties via the Howard Frankland Bridge wouldn't start until 2022, when an old span is set to be replaced.

That has transit backers scrambling to pick up the pace.

"With this high-speed rail news, we have to ratchet up the time line," said Ronnie Duncan, chairman of TBARTA. "I don't want somebody to ride from Orlando to Tampa and be forced to rent a car or take a taxi to get to their destination."

David Armijo, executive director of Hillsborough Area Rapid Transit, said the bus agency will be ready to shuttle passengers from the high-speed rail station as soon as it opens.

Already, a bus runs every 15 minutes on weekdays and every 30 minutes on weekends from HART's Marion Street Transit Center, which is across the street from the proposed high-speed rail station, to the International Plaza shopping mall, Tampa International Airport and on to Town 'N Country.

"You can get from there to the airport within 35 minutes," Armijo said. "We hope to make it faster."

In summer 2011, HART will open a transit center near the airport, where Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority buses eventually will take people to the beaches and downtown St. Petersburg.

And by 2012, HART plans to have a bus rapid transit line, which travels in a dedicated lane unimpeded by traffic, running every 10 minutes from the Marion Street center to the University of South Florida.

Even those plans, though, rely on the success of a sales tax referendum, because property tax revenues that support the bus agency continue to decline, Armijo said.

"You can't keep operating more with less money," he said. "You need more dollars to increase the frequency and the capacity of the service that we're talking about."

Hillsborough County voters are likely to consider a 1-cent sales tax to pay for transportation improvements in November.

County Commissioner Kevin Beckner says the high-speed rail news at the very least will highlight the importance of the issue for voters. But he worries they won't understand that while the federal stimulus money is exclusively for rail, Hillsborough's new tax would pay for more buses as well as road improvements.

"We're focused on multimodal transportation," he said. "Yes, rail is involved. But it's not just trains."

Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio, one of the most vocal proponents of the new tax, said it would have been necessary even without high-speed rail.

But the bullet train adds another dimension that allows the Tampa Bay area to easily connect with Orlando and beyond.

"Our local system is needed no matter what," she said. "But now it's going to be part of a much larger transportation system."

Pinellas County rail backers hope to take a sales tax referendum to voters in 2012. In addition to paying for a rail line connecting Clearwater to the Gateway area and St. Petersburg, the money generated would pay for expanded bus service.

Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch said the announcement of the high-speed money "has an exponential effect on our local plans and the viability of our local plans."

But he said the burden will still be on supporters of any new sales tax to sell it to voters.

Officials with the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority say that without more money, it's not possible to add rail routes from Hillsborough to the beaches, but some buses could be reassigned to make the trip.

"I just cannot see any circumstance where high-speed rail would come in and there's no way to get to the beaches," said Bob Lasher, spokesman for the PSTA.

With the federal rail plan now in the works, Pinellas County and PSTA officials are discussing how projects can be moved up. They hope to complete the study of the Pinellas rail corridor quicker than the original 18-month timetable.

Last week, Pinellas County officials agreed to participate in a $4 million study of the Howard Frankland and Pinellas rail lines. All but $500,000 comes from federal and state grants.

"Part of that money being spent will go to expediting the work on the bridge replacement sooner rather than waiting until 2022," Duncan said. "As lengthy as the process is, the work has already begun."

Pinellas County Commission Chairwoman Karen Seel plans to launch a transit task force in May with transit officials and business and community leaders to help decide which parts of the light rail system could be done the fastest.

"I think with the high-speed rail project ending in Tampa, it is now critically important to make the connection in Pinellas," Seel said.

Though the final pieces of TBARTA's master plan don't show completion until far in the future, Duncan hopes some of its impact, such as the expanded bus rapid service, will be felt as soon as the high-speed rail station is finished.

"That in itself is an improvement," he said. "Is it the ultimate? No. But in the meantime, that can happen. That will happen."

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

Tampa Bay rail advocates scramble for ways to connect with proposed high-speed line 01/30/10 [Last modified: Sunday, January 31, 2010 1:36pm]

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