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  1. Transportation

High-speed rail firm scouting land for station and development around proposed Rays ballpark site

Brightline, a Miami railroad and development firm, is looking for sites in downtown Tampa where it could build a station for a Tampa-Orlando high-speed railroad. The sites include Tampa Park Apartments, a privately owned low-cost housing complex, according to local officials who met recently with Brightline. [BRONTE WITTPENN | Times]
Published Aug. 3, 2018

TAMPA — Brightline, the firm behind the passenger rail system between Miami and West Palm Beach, doesn't yet know if it will win a state bid to build a high-speed rail link between Tampa and Orlando.

But the company is already scouting sites for a terminus in downtown Tampa, according to local officials.

Among the sites that have caught the interest of Brightline are Tampa Union Station, Tampa Park Apartments and the old jail site on North Morgan Street, officials said.

That could put a new rail terminus within walking distance of a new Tampa Bay Rays ballpark proposed for Ybor City. And with Brightline subsidizing railroad cost by cashing in on development around stations, it could make the area just north of the Channel District a potential new hub of downtown's expansion.

"They're real estate developers," said Bob McDonaugh, Tampa's administrator for economic opportunity, who recently met with Brightline officials. "If a station is well-sited, it does create real estate opportunities."

Florida Gov. Rick Scott announced last month that the state will consider bids to revive the rail project that was considered dormant after Scott in 2011 turned down $2.4 billion in federal funding for the same project.

RELATED: Rick Scott announces potential high-speed rail linking Tampa and Orlando

It came after Brightline submitted an unsolicited bid to build and run the service from the Orlando International Airport Intermodal Terminal into downtown Tampa.

Bidders must use a route that runs along Interstate 4 on land owned by the state and the Central Florida Expressway Authority. How it would make its way into downtown Tampa is less clear.

"They have spent a lot of time with alignment along the highway and where to come off of it," McDonaugh said.

Brightline officials also recently met with Tampa Housing Authority officials seeking information about Tampa Park Apartments, a privately owned housing complex, and the authority's plans for the nearby Encore redevelopment project, which is home to close to 1,000 residents and still has several vacant lots.

"They asked me about the habits of our residents and other uses to get a feel for the massing that will take place at Encore that would facilitate the urban densities needed to support rail," said Leroy Moore, the Housing Authority's Chief Operating Officer. "All of those locations would serve and be quite close to Encore. Our folks there would be able to have easy access."

Tampa Park Apartments is owned by a nonprofit group that is led by Florida Sentinel Bulletin newspaper publisher S. Kay Andrews. Other officers of the nonprofit corporation include James Harrell, former president of the Local No. 1402 of the International Longshoremen's Union.

They might have an incentive to sell to Brightline.

After a fourth failed inspection in four years, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development last month sent letters to about 170 families informing them they will be moved out of the complex and into Section 8 housing beginning in August. It also sent a notice of default to the owners informing them that it will no longer subsidize rents in more than half of the complex's roughly 370 apartments.

RELATED: Yards from a proposed new Rays ballpark: Housing so poor HUD will no longer subsidize it

An attorney representing the owners is disputing the notice. He declined to comment.

The old jail site on Morgan Street has already had two brief flirtations with rail. It was considered a potential station site for a cross-bay rail network between Tampa and St. Petersburg that state officials briefly floated in 2007. That happened again in 2010 when City of Tampa officials talked about a high-speed rail system between Tampa, Lakeland and Orlando that would be completed by 2015. It is owned by the Florida Department of Transportation.

Tampa Union Station was originally built in 1912 to serve the Atlantic Coast Line, the Seaboard Air Line and the Tampa Northern Railroad. It was restored and reopened in 1998. It is served by Amtrak's Silver Service between New York and Miami. It is owned by the city of Tampa.

Brightline officials declined an interview request but released the following statement from Ben Porritt, Brightline senior vice president of corporate affairs: "We're focused on finding the best station location that will improve mobility for residents and visitors. We're analyzing a set of options that will work with the alignment of the proposed route and offer unique development opportunities, which will help establish this as a destination."

Contact Christopher O'Donnell at codonnell@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times.

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