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CSX Tampa Bay rail lines no longer for sale

An emphasis on freight trains dims prospects for a four-county commuter rail service.
Some members of the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority want to push forward with a potential $500,000 study on the feasibility of using the CSX tracks for future passenger service. Separately, a proposed $3.5 million study of a regionwide passenger rail system remains on the five-year priority list for Hillsborough’s Transportation Planning Organization.
Some members of the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority want to push forward with a potential $500,000 study on the feasibility of using the CSX tracks for future passenger service. Separately, a proposed $3.5 million study of a regionwide passenger rail system remains on the five-year priority list for Hillsborough’s Transportation Planning Organization. [ CHRIS URSO | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Jul. 20

The Tampa Bay region’s decadeslong flirtation with commuter train service could be derailed by the private company that owns the tracks.

Seven years after CSX first said it would consider selling two of its freight lines running through Hernando, Pasco, Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, the company has removed the “for sale” sign.

“They’re pretty direct. At this point, they’re not interested,” said David Gwynn, Florida’s transportation secretary for the Tampa Bay region.

Gwynn and Ming Gao, modal development administrator at the state’s regional transportation office, delivered that message last week to the governing board of Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority. It’s the third time this year they’ve briefed the authority on the CSX position.

In a statement this week to the Tampa Bay Times, CSX said it would “review any substantive plan put forth regarding commuter rail service in the Tampa Bay area.”

The key word there is “substantive.”

Gwynn put it more bluntly to the transit authority’s board members.

“They don’t like spending a lot of time talking about things that really are just pie in the sky,” Gwynn said.

Freight service remains the company’s focus.

“CSX operations in Tampa are essential to the national supply chain network. Our priority is to protect CSX’s critical assets, preserving our ability to grow and provide reliable, efficient freight rail service to our customers,” the company said.

Regardless, some members of the transit authority want to push forward with a potential $500,000 study on the feasibility of using the tracks for future passenger service. The authority is soliciting proposals from firms to study, among other things, the cost of upgrading the lines and annual operation and maintenance expenses. The proposals are due in August and the governing board could decide to award a contract any time until February.

Cliff Manuel of Brooksville, chairman of the transit authority’s governing board, said the agency should get those financial questions answered because CSX hasn’t taken the lead to do so.

But not everyone agreed.

“We don’t have a willing partner,” lamented Kathryn Starkey, chairperson of the Pasco County commission and a member of the authority’s governing board.

Without cooperation from CSX, a consultant wouldn’t have access to the company’s rail tracks to determine condition and what upgrades would be required, cautioned Brian Pressaro, the authority’s principal planner.

Separately, a proposed $3.5 million study of a regionwide passenger rail system remains on the five-year priority list for Hillsborough’s Transportation Planning Organization. Last month, Tampa City Council member Lynn Hurtak tried unsuccessfully to knock the study further down a 95-item wish list because of the recalcitrance from CSX. Her motion did not receive a second.

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The freight lines to be studied include the “Clearwater subdivision,” running from downtown St. Petersburg to downtown Clearwater, Oldsmar and east, past Tampa International Airport to Ybor City. The second route is called the “Brooksville subdivision,” from Tampa north, toward the University of South Florida, and then running parallel to U.S. 41 in central Pasco County and ending in Brooksville in Hernando County.

“The CSX tracks in Pinellas are probably our biggest underutilized asset,” said Whit Blanton, executive director of Forward Pinellas, the county’s land-use planning agency. “The real need is to get between St. Pete and Tampa International Airport and on to downtown, and the CSX tracks are not ideal for that.”

A lot of the tracks slice through residential or low-density industrial areas, Blanton said, and “do not serve our most job-rich or residential-rich areas.”

There is precedent for converting freight lines to commuter rail. In 2011, CSX sold 61.5 miles of track to the state for $150 million, or $2.4 million a mile, for Orlando’s commuter rail service, SunRail. The project’s total cost was $432 million. Federal dollars paid for half of it. The other half was paid by the state, the city of Orlando and four counties.

Gwynn said CSX indicated it may be open to leasing its freight lines in the Tampa Bay region, but he said the state wouldn’t participate unless it could buy the property. The cost of any lease arrangement, then, would have to be borne by local governments — a likely poison pill.

The cost of a rail system, which could run several billion dollars, is the reason the regional transit authority put its focus on devising a bus rapid transit system, said Gao of the state transportation department. That plan remains in the study stage.

Times staff writer Olivia George contributed to this report.

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