TAMPA — A train, hardly larger than a bus and nearly as nimble, glides into the station at Gandy Boulevard and Dale Mabry Highway. A cluster of passengers slips on board.
Some walked from nearby condos. Some stepped off buses that circulate through South Tampa. Some parked in the station's lot. Now, they're off toward the Hyde Park stations, the University of Tampa stop and next, downtown Tampa.
Obviously, this is a long-range vision. But it's getting traction around Tampa Bay.
Mayor Pam Iorio wants to launch a rail system as a top priority of her second term, and at least two Republican county commissioners are touting the need for it. The 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 passenger train reaches Gandy.
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 persuade 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.
A first step likely will be improved bus service, including "bus rapid transit" — buses that might run in semiexclusive lanes, with few stops and perhaps with the ability to control 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, thinks the county's earliest rail lines should connect Hillsborough's three largest jobs centers: downtown Tampa, West Shore and the University of South Florida.
Ultimately, in the MPO's view, trains would reach to St. Petersburg and Orlando, Westchase and Ruskin, New Tampa and South Tampa.
An urgent need?
Is Hillsborough ready?
Chiaramonte says a rail plan is overdue. Other than Tampa and Detroit, each of the nation's 25 largest metropolitan areas operates trains or plans to start, he said.
Several smaller cities, like 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 that this area still isn't ready. Not when only 1 percent of travelers use buses and less than a fifth of all local 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 that traffic delays in this part of Florida will nearly quadruple by 2030. But Polzin warns that trains may siphon away only a tiny fraction of these travelers.
Chiaramonte counters: "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," County Commissioner Rose Ferlita says, "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.
'Bigger than Ikea'
The MPO's vision contains two types of trains.
Passengers seeking longer, faster trips could use commuter rail: regional locomotive-powered trains like the one planned along Interstate 4 from Tampa to Orlando.
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 seven planned for South Tampa.
Light-rail trains would run through Ybor City, West Shore and Tampa International Airport. Through South Tampa, they would follow existing CSX Transportation tracks.
At many stations within the city, the evolution to rail would include development of bustling centers with concentrations of apartments, condos, offices and shops within walking distance.
Chiaramonte noted that South Tampa already has denser housing patterns than most of Hillsborough and has pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods. That makes it more suited to train service.
Tony LaColla, president of the Historic Ybor Neighborhood and Civic Association, said the MPO plan would encourage higher-density development in Ybor and bring in community-minded urban residents who would support the area's businesses. It would encourage tourism and discourage crime, LaColla said.
"In the end you're going to have more people here — more bodies, more eyes," LaColla said. "People in Ybor City would welcome rail in a heartbeat."
Five lines would run through Ybor City, which would host two transfer stops, on the lines from downtown Tampa to East Hillsborough and from St. Petersburg to North Tampa.
LaColla said the plan would be the best thing to happen to Ybor.
"Bigger than Ikea," he said. "Bigger than Centro Ybor."
Hyde Park would host two stations, on Watrous and Swann avenues.
Taryn Sabia, the 29-year-old co-founder of the civic-design organization Urban Charrette, said the rail would go hand in hand with the $100-million condominium and retail project for Hyde Park Village approved by the City Council in December.
"Hyde Park is truly an amenity in and of itself," Sabia said. "To provide people with an easy way to get there that's interesting and fun and relaxing would be something that would surely enhance it."