Hillsborough County residents said no to the idea of a light rail system in that county during the Nov. 2 election, but in Pinellas County a study of a light rail line is proceeding. Residents who have an opinion or question about that idea will be able to weigh in Monday evening without leaving the comfort of their homes.
A "Transportation eTownHall" will be held starting at 7 p.m., and residents will be able to participate or watch it via their computers, telephones and the Pinellas County government access television channel. It's a way for local officials to gain feedback from many more people than could be jammed into a meeting room. In fact, some 40,000 Pinellas residents will receive a phone call prior to the event inviting them to participate, but residents can do so whether they get a call or not.
Officials on the other end who will be taking the feedback and answering the questions will be County Commission Chairwoman Karen Seel; St. Petersburg City Council member Jeff Danner; Brian Smith, executive director of the Pinellas Metropolitan Planning Organization; and Bob Clifford, executive director of the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority.
Those individuals, along with others, are involved in an 18-month study of possible corridors for light rail in Pinellas. Officials throughout the county already have identified the points they'd like to see connected by a rail line: St. Petersburg, the Gateway area in mid-Pinellas, Clearwater and Hillsborough County. The study, called an "alternatives analysis," will identify the possible routes between those points, potential station locations, costs and feasibility. The study will look at not just rail, but also routes for rapid bus service.
The alternatives analysis is the first major step toward determining whether a modern mass transit system would work in car-happy Pinellas, but it is still in the early stages. And even if the study concluded that such a system was feasible, a method of funding it would have to be found — likely a tax of some sort that would go to the voters for approval, probably in 2012.
The idea of rail in Pinellas is embraced by some and attacked by others. Some of the anger comes from people who mistakenly believe that what's being proposed for Pinellas is high-speed rail, like the line to be built between Orlando and Tampa.
Pinellas is too small to be a candidate for high-speed rail. What's being studied here is light rail, which has less capacity, slower speeds and more frequent stops than high-speed rail. The rail cars, which are usually electric, run on rails but look more like modern buses than the big, heavy trains that some people envision. They are designed to get passengers from point to point rather than to cover long distances without stopping.
Government officials have conceded that Pinellas motorists face more traffic jams unless effective mass transit can be developed here. Many roads have been widened as much as the right-of-way allows, yet are still overcrowded and not able to carry traffic efficiently. Mass transit is the only alternative to roads that are increasingly congested and dangerous.
Residents can share their thoughts about the proposal or find out what others are thinking during the eTownHall. They can begin by posting questions to an online blog that will open at 9 a.m. Monday. For information, go to www.pinellascounty.org/etownhall. The telephone portion of the town hall will begin at 7 p.m. Residents who wish to participate in that portion can call toll free 1-888-886-6603, ext. 16006#. Those who just want to watch the event can tune their televisions to Bright House cable Channel 622, Knology Channel 18 or Verizon Channel 44.
Don't fret if you miss this event. There will be many more chances for officials to share information and for the public to ask questions before any decisions are made.