St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster insists he has a regional view of Tampa Bay and supports Hillsborough's November referendum as the first step toward creating an area-wide light-rail system. But his latest efforts to ensure Pinellas County and St. Petersburg don't get left behind undercut that message, confuse the public and sound parochial.
Foster has been demanding that state and federal plans to build high-speed rail from Orlando to Tampa include Pinellas. If they don't, he has suggested he might not support Hillsborough's referendum to add a 1 cent sales tax to pay for more buses, improve roads and start building a light-rail system.
On Monday, the St. Petersburg mayor returned to his original playbook and clarified his intent. Foster said in an interview that he wants to be part of the conversation about a regional rail system, likes light rail and can't imagine opposing Hillsborough's effort. He said he only wants to make sure Pinellas is linked by high-speed rail or light rail to Hillsborough and that there is a regional effort to secure state and federal funding to help cover the cost of crossing Tampa Bay. The St. Petersburg City Council quietly revised a resolution last week to be neutral on the type of rail it wants to cross the bay — as long as it is funded within the first phase of high-speed rail. If that's what Foster means, he should say it more clearly.
While St. Petersburg was once included in discussions about high-speed rail, there are valid reasons why the state long ago focused on the route from Orlando that will end in Tampa. The cost of extending it across Tampa Bay would be prohibitive, because high-speed rail requires wider and sturdier bridges. High speed and light rail generally can't run on the same lines. And high-speed rail should be used for longer stretches than coming from downtown Tampa to Pinellas.
Foster fears Pinellas would be forced to pay for the cost of crossing the bay to link its light-rail system with Tampa's. But there is nothing to justify that concern and his sabre rattling. From the start, there has been broad support throughout the area to create a regional light-rail system — Hillsborough is just further along than Pinellas in its planning and better positioned to take the first plunge with its November referendum. And no one credible has suggested Pinellas taxpayers would have to pay the full cost of crossing Tampa Bay. It will require a full-throated regional effort to convince the state and federal governments to advance the construction of a new Howard Frankland Bridge that accommodates light rail.
Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio repeated her support for that united lobbying effort, and Foster says he's on board. So perhaps agitating for a high-speed rail link to Pinellas is just the St. Petersburg mayor's way of negotiating to make sure Tampa Bay winds up with a regional rail system that serves everyone. But there are better ways to make that point than to risk alienating regional partners and clouding the debate as Hillsborough prepares for a vital vote on rail.