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Regional light rail back on track

An old idea is finding new life in central Pasco, as a regional commuter network becomes the latest buzz among transportation planners.

In the last two months, the idea of using CSX Corp.'s central Pasco freight line for regional mass transit has resurfaced in ongoing talks between the Tampa Bay Partnership and CSX, said Dewey Mitchell, a past chairman of the partnership involved in the talks.

The idea was last floated in the early 1990s, as part of a regional proposal that petered out for lack of a critical mass of population.

But now, development in Pasco is helping to fuel a sense of urgency for mass transit, and regional officials are pinpointing areas for potential commuter rail lines in the future.

"The key is setting aside the corridors and making these corridors available; the corridors are rapidly closing," Mitchell said.

The Florida Department of Transportation is helping the partnership identify corridor possibilities, Mitchell said. Bob Clifford, DOT's planning manager, was unavailable Friday for comment.

The partnership is now working to identify corridors where rights-of-way need to be set aside, Mitchell said.

In Pasco, the right-of-way corridors identified are the major north-south thoroughfares of U.S. 19, the Suncoast Parkway, Interstate 75, the rail line hugging U.S. 41, and along power lines.

They also include the east-west routes of state roads 54 and 52.

"There has been a dialogue with CSX at the conceptual stage," Mitchell said. "We didn't get specific ... It's possible the existing (rail) line could be utilized, or the existing right-of-way (next to the rail line) could be utilized."

Meg Sacks, CSX's spokeswoman for Florida, did not reply to a call for comment Friday.

In Pasco, CSX has a freight rail line threading through Lutz and Land O'Lakes; the line starts in Tampa's port and currently dead-ends just northwest of Brooksville.

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The current round of talks lays the groundwork for a proposed regional transit authority, armed with public spending powers.

The partnership, a non-profit regional marketing agency, would pass the baton to that authority, Mitchell said.

A bill to create a regional authority is working its way through the Legislature; supporters hope it will be passed in the spring.

State Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, who is steering the bill through the Senate, said the bill would give the authority the power to issue bonds and spend tax dollars.

There has not yet been a cost estimate for the current regional mass transit proposal, but the idea is to have a network stretching across Citrus, Hernando, Pasco, Polk, Pinellas, Hillsborough and Sarasota counties, with park-and-ride stations dotting rail lines, Mitchell said.

Proponents of mass transit say a regional authority is key, to iron out different preferences among counties. For example, Pinellas desires an elevated monorail, but Hillsborough wants light rail that runs on the ground, said Tim Hayes, a Land O'Lakes attorney and a former member of the defunct Tampa Bay Commuter Rail Authority.

Today, there is no consensus yet on the type of rail system that would be used, Mitchell said.

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The challenge would lie in making commuter rail worth taxpayers' while.

In the past, mass transit proposals in the Tampa Bay area have died because there were not enough people to justify such proposals.

Downtown Tampa in the early 1990s, for example, only had a working population of about 30,000, not enough to generate enough of an urban core around which to build a mass transit network, Hayes said.

But things have changed.

Population in the Tampa Bay area has grown swiftly. Tampa, St. Petersburg and Clearwater currently are home to 2.6-million people.

Between 1990 and 2005, Pasco's population has jumped from 281,131 to 429,065, according to the U.S. Census. Tampa also now has major urban attractions that could form an urban core, Hayes said.

The Tampa Bay Partnership is modeling its mass transit hopes on comparable systems in cities like Denver; Salt Lake City; Dallas; and Washington D.C., Mitchell said.

But the Tampa Bay area's urban landscape is also a lot more sprawling than these cities, which makes it less conducive to a mass transit system, because that sprawl would drive up the cost of a rail-based network.

The question that confronts the as-yet-unborn authority is: Will the Tampa Bay area's growth support the high investment cost of mass transit?

"If government has to subsidize this, have we really solved anything, apart from pollution and things like that?" Hayes asked. "If you have to drive more than 10 miles to get to the station, it won't make sense. People will just drive to their destination instead."

Researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this article. Chuin-Wei Yap covers growth and development. He can be reached at (813)909-4613 or