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Tampa tracks a sensible future: rail

Photo courtesy of the Hillsborough County Metropolitan Planning Organization
Transportation planners look at light-rail trains like this one in Minneapolis and see the future. But a USF expert says Tampa isn’t ready for rail.

Photo courtesy of the Hillsborough County Metropolitan Planning Organization Transportation planners look at light-rail trains like this one in Minneapolis and see the future. But a USF expert says Tampa isn’t ready for rail.

BRANDON — A train, hardly larger than a bus and nearly as nimble, glides into the station at Brandon Boulevard and Kings Avenue. A cluster of passengers slips on board.

Some walked from nearby condos. Some stepped off buses that circulate through Brandon. Some parked in the station's lot. Now, they're off toward a series of stops that include Brandon Town Center, Ybor City and downtown Tampa.

Obviously, this is a long-range vision. But it's getting traction around Tampa Bay.

Launching a rail system is one of Mayor Pam Iorio's top second term priorities. At least two Republican Hillsborough County commissioners are touting the need for it. The Florida Legislature has created — and funded — a regional transportation authority with the power to condemn land, borrow money and operate a bay area train system.

"The Legislature's intent was to focus on transit first," says Bob Clifford, planning director for the Tampa Bay district of the Florida Department of Transportation.

Yet many years will pass before a train reaches Kings Avenue.

The new Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority, with Clifford as unofficial chief of staff, must develop a master transportation plan by July 1, 2009. Iorio, the most prominent advocate of rail, hopes to convince voters in 2010 to approve tax increases to pay for the system.

"Even with the money in place, it's five or 10 years before you have something coming out of the ground," Clifford said.

And trains in Hillsborough's outlying suburbs might be the last of several installments. A first step likely will be improved bus service, including "bus rapid transit" — buses that might run in semi-exclusive lanes, with fewer stops and the ability to trigger traffic lights in their favor.

A second step would be a core downtown rail system.

Ray Chiaramonte, interim director of Hillsborough County's Metropolitan Planning Organization, believes the county's earliest rail lines should connect Hillsborough's three largest jobs centers: downtown Tampa, Westshore and USF.

Ultimately, in the MPO's view, trains would reach to St. Petersburg and Orlando, Westchase and Ruskin, New Tampa and South Tampa.

Ready or not ...

Is Hillsborough ready?

Chiaramonte says a rail plan is overdue. Other than Tampa and Detroit, each of the nation's 25 largest metropolitan areas is operating trains or planning to start, he said. Several smaller cities, such as Buffalo, Sacramento and Salt Lake City, are running trains.

Yet Steve Polzin, director of mobility policy at USF's Center for Urban Transportation Research, argues this area still isn't ready. Not when only one percent of travelers use buses, and where less than a fifth of all trips are for work. And only in Los Angeles are jobs more dispersed than in the Hillsborough-Pinellas area, Polzin says.

Polzin thinks Hillsborough County should begin collecting taxes for a rail system, but shouldn't build one until bus ridership doubles to 2 percent.

"That would be pretty dramatic," said Polzin, who is a board member of the county's bus agency.

The DOT predicts traffic delays in this part of Florida will nearly quadruple by 2030. But Polzin warns trains may siphon away only a tiny fraction of these travelers.

Argues Chiaramonte: "Even people who are not going to use it themselves, it's in their interest to get some of these cars off the road."

"If we continue to just look at roads, " said County Commissioner Rose Ferlita, "we're going to be in this same mess 10 years from now."

The system mapped by the MPO is far-reaching. It would cost more than $6-billion to build and $90-million a year to operate.

"If you're going to do a referendum, then you've got to have something for everybody," Chiaramonte said.

Two types of trains

The MPO's vision contains two types of trains.

Passengers seeking longer, faster trips could use commuter rail: regional locomotive-powered trains such as the one planned from Tampa into Pasco County. Two such lines would run along U.S. 41 — through South Shore into Manatee County and through Lutz into Pasco County. A third would head toward Orlando, either along Interstate 4 or through Brandon.

Most local lines in the MPO vision would be "light rail," the flexible trains that could share streets with cars. They would serve stations spaced at 1 to 2 miles, such as the 10 on Brandon Boulevard and the seven in South Tampa.

At many stations, the evolution to rail would include development of bustling centers with concentrations of apartments, condos, offices and shops within walking distance.

Planners consider Adamo Drive, industrial and aging, a prime candidate for such redevelopment.

"There is more than enough redevelopment potential in the Adamo Drive/Brandon Boulevard corridor to support a light rail line," Chiaramonte wrote in an e-mail.

Such "densification" would be milder in more outlying areas, said Clifford, and could emphasize park-and-ride lots and improved bus service. Chiaramonte said land-use rules around stations would be sensitive to community identities.

"We're not going to make Lutz have skyscrapers," he said.

Kristin Jernigan, who commutes weekdays from Ruskin, is not clamoring for a rail system just yet. Jernigan leaves her Mira Lago neighborhood each morning and takes the Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway to downtown Tampa, where she works for Hillsborough County schools.

Her husband, Jason, a pharmacist, drives 80 miles to and from St. Petersburg.

"In this area we're very dependent on our cars, on having our free time and being able to go where we want and when we want," said Jernigan, 27.

The Crosstown's elevated lane makes her half-hour, 60-mile round trip easier than last year, when the Jernigans lived in Town 'N Country. Back then, driving the seven miles to work took an hour.

One factor could get Jernigan to take the train: cost.

Her Honda Accord gets 30 miles per gallon, which with current gas prices and tolls drains $10 a day from her wallet.

If she could get to and from work for half that amount, Jernigan would consider leaving her car in the garage.

"I certainly would be open to it," she said.

Bill Coats can be reached at (813) 269-5309 or coats@sptimes.com.

Not a quick process

July 1, 2009

The date by which the new Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority must develop a master transportation plan.

2010

The year in which Mayor Pam Iorio hopes to persuade voters to approve tax increases to pay for the system.

5-10 years later

"Even with the money in place, it's five or 10 years before you have something coming out of the ground," says Bob Clifford, planning director for the Tampa Bay district of the Florida Department of Transportation.

2030

The DOT predicts traffic delays in this part of Florida will have nearly quadrupled.

Tampa tracks a sensible future: rail 05/15/08 [Last modified: Friday, May 16, 2008 1:02pm]
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