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Hillsborough rail, streetcar and ferry projects wait in limbo for Supreme Court tax decision

The projects have been batted about, refined, voted on and shelved countless times — one for more than three decades. But supporters say they’re closer than ever to becoming reality.
A bicyclist crosses the railroad tracks at N 30th St. near East Fowler Avenue on Monday, Aug. 10, 2020, in Tampa. The section of CSX-owned railway could be used in one of Hillsborough County's three premium transit projects, including a commuter rail line between downtown and USF.
A bicyclist crosses the railroad tracks at N 30th St. near East Fowler Avenue on Monday, Aug. 10, 2020, in Tampa. The section of CSX-owned railway could be used in one of Hillsborough County's three premium transit projects, including a commuter rail line between downtown and USF. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Aug. 27, 2020
Updated Aug. 27, 2020

TAMPA — Earlier this month, people who sit on Hillsborough County’s transit board discussed three projects that supporters say would change how people move around the vast county.

For two and a half hours, they conjured scenes of a different Hillsborough. People hopping a train at the University of South Florida and riding into downtown Tampa. Friends who live in Tampa Heights taking the streetcar to a show. South County residents could catch a ferry into work at MacDill Air Force Base or sail over to St. Petersburg for a night on the town.

“I was excited that this was all coming together and giving people a real chance to ask questions and get into the nuts and bolts,” transit board chairwoman Mariella Smith said. “We needed this opportunity to really dive in...and see a vision for our county moving forward.”

All three projects involve getting people out of their cars. Each costs millions of dollars. And none of them are new ideas.

They’ve been batted about, refined, voted on and shelved countless times — one for more than three decades. But supporters say they’re closer than ever to becoming reality.

Specifics such as how many miles of track would be needed, where the streetcar would turn around and where the ferry would dock have been addressed. Budgets and timetables are sketched out, and a federal grant application is underway.

Most importantly, supporters say, public opinion has changed. Any mention of rail might still be a lightning rod, but voters across every district said in 2018 they’d be willing to pay higher taxes in order to have more transportation options.

There’s one hold-up: An appeals case that sits before the Florida Supreme Court could overturn the tax that would help each of these break ground. It’s unknown whether justices will rule next week, next year or sometime in between.

Related: Florida Supreme Court justices question validity of Hillsborough transportation tax

Without the sales tax revenue, there’s likely not enough money to move one project forward, let alone three.

“It’s the same obstacle we have had for the last two decades I’ve been involved in this conversation,” said Beth Alden, executive director of the county’s transportation planning organization. “You can keep doing studies and have all the discussion in the world, but until you come up with that local money, you can’t build the thing."

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Tampa Bay remains one of the most transit-starved metropolitan areas in the country. Those who don’t have a car are more limited in where they can live and work than people in similar cities.

Michael Bishop, 51, has a car now but used to depend on the bus for work, fun and errands. He knows all about missed connections, routes that don’t make sense and walking to and from stops in the Florida heat.

Bishop still takes the bus a few times a week, but he’s frustrated by years of inaction on projects like a commuter rail line that he said could make a big impact. The Seminole Heights resident said transit linking downtown, USF and urban neighborhoods would help people reach better jobs and improve quality of life.

“I’m at the point that anything that moves us and connects us, I think it’ll help,” said Bishop, who does freelance web development work.

But opponents say the cost and permanence of such projects is a non-starter. Hillsborough County Commissioner Stacy White, who filed the lawsuit challenging the validity of the 2018 transportation sales tax, said he’s “very nervous” about investing in such projects. The cost of laying down the miles of track needed to adequately serve all communities within the county is just too high, he said.

It’s a critique elected officials have levied for decades. More than a dozen plans to expand transit service or build new lines were voted down or ignored over the past 30 years.

Related: Tampa Bay has one of the worst public transit systems in America. Here's why.

A multi-county commuter rail system was proposed in 1991, but died after officials couldn’t find a funding source for it. Another plan to build light rail and expand bus service qualified for federal money in 1995. The county commission later killed it.

A few years later, a 99-person committee of residents and transportation experts put together a $1 billion plan to improve roads and expand bus service. The commission rejected it.

Mark Sharpe joined the commission in 2004, when the work of the committee was still a recent memory. Even at that point, he said, people were frustrated. But he thinks the climate surrounding transit discussions has changed significantly since he left office in 2014.

“The groundwork has been laid,” Sharpe said. “We’ve got strong leadership in place, which is critical. And we’re at a point where we all realize, politics aside, we’ve got to make progress.”

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Commuter rail, the ferry and an extended streetcar could form the backbone for a transit network that supports people who depend on it and bolsters development happening across the county.

The important part, Smith said, is that they all operate outside of regular traffic, at least for most of the route. They run on water, tracks or in their own dedicated lane, instead of on busy streets. Projects like this are called “fixed guideway,” and they qualify for certain federal and state grants.

“What fixed guideway really means is they’re congestion proof,” Smith said. “All three of these are pieces of the puzzle that will hopefully, eventually, work together.”

Local leaders are considering extending the streetcar into Tampa Heights, replacing the historic cars and modernizing the line.
Local leaders are considering extending the streetcar into Tampa Heights, replacing the historic cars and modernizing the line.

Currently under discussion is a nine-mile rail segment that would link downtown Tampa and USF. The project has been studied about a dozen times, with conversations dating back to the 1980s. The tracks already exist, and are currently used by CSX to deliver freight. The railroad company said in 2015 it would be open to selling the line, which could be used for passenger cars.

County Commissioner Pat Kemp has emerged as the latest proponent. The tracks, she said, connect key areas and run through one of the densest areas in the region for jobs and homes. And they go straight to USF’s campus, a point she said most people don’t realize.

Cost estimates range from $490 million to $620 million to build.

Because running a commuter rail line on CSX tracks is the most expensive of the three, it’s also likely the furthest from happening.

The other two projects revolve around existing transit options: the Tampa streetcar and the Cross-Bay Ferry.

The streetcar opened in the 1990s and has mostly served as a tourism and entertainment option.

Ridership floundered for much of its lifespan, and the project saw little love in the 2000s from elected officials, including those like Sharpe who now support it.

“Nobody was really ready to pull the trigger on extending the streetcar,” said former commissioner Brian Blair. “I think no matter how long the discussion goes on, it’s going to be very hard to take people out of the car they’re used to having.”

But ridership increased recently after officials removed the fare, making it free to ride. Development downtown along Channelside and the Riverwalk has also helped bolster its use.

The 1.3-mile extension would take the line up into Tampa Heights, making it possible for urban residents to ride it downtown for work, dinner or a Lightning game.

Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority board members voted to start a federal grant application process that could pay for up to $100 million of the $238 million project.

Meanwhile, former Hillsborough Commissioner Ed Turanchik is hoping to turn the seasonal Cross-Bay Ferry — which connects downtown St. Pete and Tampa on nights and weekends with a 50-minute boat ride — into a four-boat, year-round service that also provides commuter trips between southern Hillsborough County and MacDill Air Force Base.

SCOTT KEELER  |   Times
The Cross Bay Ferry, Provincetown III leaves the Vinoy Yacht Basin, Friday, January 11, 2019 with passengers headed to Tampa's Channleside area near the Florida Aquarium.
SCOTT KEELER | Times The Cross Bay Ferry, Provincetown III leaves the Vinoy Yacht Basin, Friday, January 11, 2019 with passengers headed to Tampa's Channleside area near the Florida Aquarium. [ SCOTT KEELER | Tampa Bay Times ]

It’s the least expensive of the three, with private company HMS Ferries offering to cover operation and maintenance costs if locals paid $36 million for docks and boats. But it has faced political opposition that has resulted in votes sending it back and forth between the county commission and the transit authority. Neither is willing to make the capital investment while the fate of the sales tax remains unknown.

But it might get a more favorable look from the commission this time, following HART’s vote this month to see if the county board would be willing to help pay for it. White, who previously voted against the project, told the Tampa Bay Times he’s more open to it than before.

“I’m willing to give it a fresh, new look,” White said.

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If the Supreme Court votes that the 2018 one-cent sales tax is unconstitutional, the projects will remain in limbo.

Leadership at the transit agency recognizes the financial strain it operates under. Interim chief financial officer Cyndy Stiglich said the agency can’t move forward with any of these projects without the sales tax or a similar, sustainable revenue stream.

Contributions from the city of Tampa or Hillsborough County’s general funds are unlikely and wouldn’t go far enough, Alden said.

“They don’t even have enough money to cover the basics,” Alden said. “I can’t in all fairness seriously ask them to consider shifting funds out of their underfunded core programs.”

While peer cities invest in rail lines, ferries, autonomous vehicles and bus rapid transit, Hillsborough struggles to maintain bus service.

Sections of the county don’t see a single route cross through them. It’s not uncommon to wait an hour or more at a stop for the next bus. Multiple routes don’t run at night or on weekends.

Related: Hillsborough transit hit by double blow of coronavirus, stalled sales tax

And more cuts are coming. Staff is working on the latest revision to the network, which will leave some areas without service and others with longer waits. The proposed changes, amounting to a 10-percent service cut, would save $4.3 million a year.

The agency has fewer buses on the road than almost any other similarly sized agency, a depleted cash reserve and a pressing need to buy replacement buses for the fleet it does maintain.

“Everything we do is financially driven, irrespective of how big our vision is,” interim CEO Carolyn House Stewart said. “And our finances are no secret.”

The transit authority has watched expenses climb while reserves have largely declined since 2014. The agency was projected to face a $4.5 million shortfall next year if it weren’t for coronavirus relief money provided by the federal government.

The sales tax revenue would help stabilize the budget, expand bus service and make moving forward with new projects a possibility. More than $350 million has been gathered to date, and nearly half of that is allocated for the transit agency.

Without the tax, the county will have a difficult time maintaining bus service let alone pursuing new projects.

“I think they’re moving way too quickly and getting way out ahead of themselves,” White said. “The focus should be traditional bus service where needed and bus rapid transit... Focus the resources where it’s needed the most.”