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Regional commuter rail line envisioned

Bay area officials stood before Tampa's aging train station Thursday and envisioned a sprawling commuter system that would link the region along existing rail lines. The system would provide four branches that connect five Tampa Bay area counties, with spurs to important destinations like Tampa International Airport and the University of South Florida. Each line would begin and end at Union Station, a once-grand depot in downtown Tampa.

Unlike other dreams of whisking train commuters across the bay area and lightening the load on gridlocked roads, this proposal follows only rail corridors that are still in use.

Still, the proposal would cost hundreds of millions of dollars, and officials conceded finding the money could be a problem. One estimate placed the cost at a million dollars per mile for constructing the 121-mile system.

This at a time when state transportation money is tight, and competition for federal dollars is fierce.

But officials stressed their plan should cost substantially less than the $2.5-billion price tag for a previously proposed futuristic light rail system, like a monorail. And, officials said, new roads cost lots of money too, serve fewer people, bring with them the problem of air pollution.

"We are not talking about pie in the sky," Hillsborough County Commissioner Ed Turanchik said. "This system is designed to go where the people are going. It is close to where people live and work."

Turanchik and state Rep. James Hargrett, D-Tampa, jointly proposed the idea. They plan to seek money in coming weeks for a feasibility study from Pinellas and Hillsborough transportation boards, and from the Tampa Bay Commuter Rail Authority.

The study alone could cost $200,000, Turanchik said. If all goes as he and Hargrett hope, Turanchik said he could see some portion of the system opening in three to five years.

"If we don't get our act together, we won't be able to benefit from state funding," said Hargrett, who was the prime sponsor of the state bill that created the Commuter Rail Authority. The authority must complete a rail plan in 1992.

A bevy of bay area officials stood under the beaming sun and offered their support. Chamber, transportation and historic preservation officials joined the politicians to promote the plan.

They said they thought the time was right. Lately, there has been more talk of regional cooperation on various levels, and fewer barbs being hurled across the bay, officials said.

Larry Jones, an official with CSX Transportation of Jacksonville, said his company supports the study. CSX owns the rail lines and Union Station.

Officials compared the system to the Miami area's Tri-Rail, which extends for more than 60 miles and cost close to $400-million to build and operate, according to the Miami Herald. But ridership was a disappointing 5,000 passengers per day last year.

Most of the 121 miles in the Tampa Bay system are used by freight trains, although Amtrak passenger trains follow a small portion.

Figures from 1988 show 213,000 people, or 26 percent of the population, live within a half-mile of the train lines in Hillsborough alone. Statistics show that 158,000 workers are within that same half-mile area.

The longest of the four lines would connect Tampa and Brooksville, traveling through or close to such suburbs as Carrollwood, Tampa Palms and the Land O'Lakes community.

Another line travels through East Hillsborough to Lakeland, with the potential to hook into lines proposed around Orlando. A short line would connect downtown Tampa to the Interbay area of south Tampa.

The final branch loops across the top of Tampa Bay, through the growing Oldsmar and Safety Harbor areas and into downtown Clearwater.

Turanchik thinks Union Station may be one key to the proposal's success. "It's a diamond in the rough," he said.

The Renaissance Revival-style station was built in 1912 and was once the center of a thriving rail business, said Stephanie Ferrell, director of the Historic Tampa/Hillsborough County Preservation Board.

But the 16,000-square-foot building closed in the 1980s, and is now boarded up and surrounded with a wire fence. Ferrell said the boards cover glorious stained glass windows and skylights in the brick and sandstone building.

The board has applied for a $350,000 to begin renovation, she said.

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