TAMPA — Even as Tampa struggles to cut $30 million from next year's budget, city officials are looking to hire a consultant to offer advice on building a mass transit hub downtown.
The contract will pay up to $100,000 a year, with payments made as services are rendered.
"Yes, we continue to shrink city government because we have to," said Mayor Pam Iorio, a strong backer of rail and other forms of mass transportation. "But that doesn't mean the city doesn't move forward strategically. It will be money well spent."
Iorio hired a transit manager in 2007, when bringing light rail to Hillsborough County became one of her top priorities. But with the city facing huge budget shortfalls last year, she eliminated the position, which paid $102,000 a year.
Then President Barack Obama awarded Florida $1.25 billion in federal stimulus money to build a high-speed rail line connecting Tampa to Orlando. Construction is likely to begin in February.
The city's decision to hire a consultant came after the state Department of Transportation asked Tampa officials what they would like to see at the downtown high-speed rail station, said Steve Daignault, the city's administrator for utilities and public works.
The spot, formerly home to a county jail, is adjacent to Interstate 275 near the Interstate 4 interchange. It is across the street from Hillsborough Area Regional Transit's downtown bus transfer station.
Iorio hopes it also will hold a light-rail station. Hillsborough voters are likely to consider in November a referendum on a 1 cent sales tax that would help pay for a light-rail system that would connect the West Shore business district to downtown and the University of South Florida.
"One of the things people ask me all the time regrading this high-speed rail and light rail is how will the two be integrated," Iorio said. "We've got to be able to answer that."
If the experience of other cities is an indication, the construction of the train station downtown will spawn surrounding commercial development.
"That northern part of downtown is going to look very different 10 or 20 years from now," Iorio said. "It one day will be one of the most dense areas of our downtown, one of the most active areas."
No one at the city has the experience needed to plan for the changes, Iorio said.
"We've got one shot to get this right," she said. "We do need some outside expertise."
A request for qualifications released last week calls for someone with expertise in light rail, high-speed rail and bus rapid transit and related planning, funding and permitting.
The consultant, who should be selected by August, also will help the city navigate such issues as rail station and transit-oriented development, parking, and pedestrian and passenger access, Daignault said.
"You need to think through some of those things, and then you need to say what other development opportunities are down there," he said. "The questions just keep coming."
The contract will need approval of the City Council.
"We obviously need to be strategic in how the area surrounding the high-speed rail station and, hopefully, our light-rail station, develops," said council member Linda Saul-Sena. "My hope it that we hire a firm with great skill in putting together all these important moving pieces."
This is not solely a transportation issue, Saul-Sena said.
"This is a city redevelopment issue," she said. "We need to hire a planner. Not a transportation engineer. We need to hire a firm with urban design skills where design is the lead concern rather than just engineering."
Janet Zink can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3401.