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Converting CSX freight tracks to commuter rail faces years of study

ST. PETERSBURG — Transit advocates across Tampa Bay have spent the past few months buzzing about converting CSX freight tracks to a commuter rail system, a prospect they hope could help ease the area's traffic problems.

But even if CSX is a solution, don't expect relief any time soon.

It will likely be two years before the Florida Department of Transportation completes the necessary feasibility study to qualify the project for federal funding. And on top of that it could take several months more to conduct an appraisal to determine the cost of purchasing the 96 miles of track from the railroad giant.

It's also unlikely the cost study will get the green light before the feasibility study is finished.

"I think we're in a holding pattern unless someone moves forward with a brilliant idea about how to acquire the right of way," said Whit Blanton, executive director of the Pinellas Metropolitan Planning Organization.

Blanton made a presentation during Friday's meeting of the Tampa Bay Transportation Management Area Leadership Group — a group of politicians and MPO representatives from Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties — about the potential of pursuing the project without federal funding. That would allow the project to bypass the arduous FDOT study.

While it's been done in New Mexico and Houston, Blanton said it's not an ideal option for Tampa Bay.

"I can't in good conscience recommend that," Blanton said. "It's a fallback option."

Forgoing federal funding in favor of local and private funds can open a project up to a lot of criticism, Blanton said. "It's almost the perception out there that you're following an illegitimate process," he said.

Plus, there's the whole matter of cost. Leaders don't know — and most likely won't know for years — how much it would cost to purchase the two routes, one traveling from Brooksville to the University of South Florida to downtown Tampa, and the other connecting Tampa to Oldsmar, Clearwater and St. Petersburg.

Orlando's freight-turned-commuter rail service, SunRail, offers some cost comparisons. In 2011, CSX sold 61.5 miles of track to the FDOT in a package rail deal that cost $432 million. That's about $7 million a mile. But without an appraisal, it's unclear whether CSX would offer a similar rate for its two Tampa Bay routes.

Federal funding usually accounts for up to 50 percent of capital costs. Take that away, and the project numbers seem a lot more daunting.

"It's a cautionary tale to go outside the norm," Blanton said, "and then you have to find out how you're paying for it. And that's a heavy lift when you're talking $300 (million) to $400 million."

Houston pulled off the feat when opening the initial 7 1/2 miles of its now 20-mile system. However, the city decided to pursue federal funding when expanding with other lines. New Mexico did the same.

Those two examples are the only ones Blanton could find for these types of projects. Every other major metropolitan area has pursued federal dollars for its rail system.

"We have got to understand we're not Houston," said Ray Chiaramonte, executive director of the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority. "People come to Florida for all different kinds of reasons. Our population is much more diverse. … It's not the same. We just need to be who we are and deal with that."

Still, politicians such as Tampa City Councilwoman Lisa Montelione and Pasco County Commissioner Jack Mariano are eager to see the CSX concept progress, and hopefully faster than the timeline presented by the FDOT.

"A lot of studies have already been done, a lot of the information gathered," Mariano said. "Let's look at the speed of this study and where we go from here."

Contact Caitlin Johnston at or (813) 226-3401. Follow @cljohnst.