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Tampa City Council backs away from airport stop for high speed rail

TAMPA — After hearing from transportation officials Thursday, the City Council backed off an effort to get money for a high-speed rail stop at Tampa International Airport.

Council member Mary Mulhern has been pushing for the stop, along with a light-rail station, saying it's critical to the future of the airport.

But airport leaders and those working on a high-speed rail line connecting downtown Tampa to Orlando have said logistics won't allow a bullet train stop there.

They reiterated those arguments at a City Council meeting, saying the airport doesn't have the space to accommodate the trains.

Mulhern rejected those claims, saying she was astounded that in 26 years of planning no one has studied taking high-speed rail to Tampa International Airport.

"If we've never studied that route from downtown to the airport, how do we know it's not feasible?" she asked.

President Barack Obama awarded Florida $1.25 billion in federal stimulus money to build a bullet train connecting downtown Tampa to Disney World, the Orlando Convention Center and Orlando International Airport. State officials will apply for a grant next month for the remaining $1.5 billion needed to complete the project.

Mulhern had hoped next month's grant application would include a request for money to study a stop at TIA. She has argued that cutting out Tampa International Airport means the airport will lose passengers to the Orlando airport, which has more international and direct domestic flights.

After learning that grant money will fund only rail construction, she now wants to find another source of grant money to study a Tampa stop.

Hillsborough transit officials are now studying the possibility of connecting the downtown high-speed rail station to the airport via light rail or bus rapid transit.

John Wheat, interim director of TIA, said those options have long been part of airport expansion plans. He said Orlando can accommodate the large high-speed rail trains and tracks because its airport owns nearly 15,000 acres compared to the Tampa airport's 3,300. Miami is planning for a high-speed rail stop at a large transportation center about a mile from its airport, he said.

But Tampa, Wheat said, differs from those locations.

"We have a very limited corridor," he said. Putting in high-speed rail would require huge physical changes, such as moving runways, he said.

"Anything is possible, I suppose, in today's environment if you throw enough money at it," Wheat said.

Ed Turanchik, director of communications for the high-speed rail project, said that since the idea of a Florida bullet train first surfaced in 1984, plans have called for connecting downtown Tampa to someplace in Miami.

The Tampa airport has never been on the table, he said.

He said he sees the glass as "seven-eighths full."

"We have the unique position of being the only city in Florida with a high-speed rail stop downtown," he said, noting that location allows for surrounding development possibilities not available near an airport. "In 2015, if all things go well for us, high-speed rail trains are coming here."

He said the focus now should be on connecting the downtown stop to the airport via light rail or bus.

Light rail, though, depends on voters approving a 1-cent sales tax in November, something council member Curtis Stokes pointed out.

"The 1-penny sales tax should be forefront in our minds right now as we go toward the November election," he said.

The two issues shouldn't be mixed up, he said. He suggested tabling the airport and high-speed rail discussion until a later date.

The council voted 4-3 against a resolution supporting a high-speed rail stop at the airport and requesting that state transportation officials ask for federal money to study the station. Council members Yolie Capin and Joseph Caetano voted with Mulhern on the losing side.

After the meeting, Mulhern said she isn't discouraged.

She plans to ask the county's Metropolitan Planning Organization to apply for grant money to complete the study.

"We need to study it," she said. "That's it."

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

Tampa City Council backs away from airport stop for high speed rail 07/29/10 [Last modified: Thursday, July 29, 2010 11:33pm]
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