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  1. Transportation

Westshore will be the hub when — or if — mass transit comes to Tampa Bay

SITE A: Westshore Plaza north parking garage: It’s right next to the interstate and could redefine the mall. But the mall garage would have to come down and it’s the furthest from the platform, making it expensive. SITE C: Charley’s Steakhouse: The parcel at 4444 W Cypress St. is the closest to the interstate and would be the shortest distance to the platform. That makes it more cost-effective, but its small footprint is bad for expansion. SITE D: Jefferson High School: The south parking lot offers 10 L-shaped acres that are close to the platform. But it’s a school that must be secured from the nearby station. FDOT also would have to build the students a new garage of their own. SITE S: Trask and Cypress Streets Parking Garages: It has good access for motorists and is near hotels. But it’s far from the platform and FDOT would have to replace lost parking.
Published Apr. 4, 2013

TAMPA — All roads lead to Westshore. One day, all train tracks could, too.

The Westshore Business District is the nexus where Interstate 275, the Howard Frankland Bridge, the Courtney Campbell Parkway, the Veterans Expressway and Tampa International Airport all connect. It has the most office space in Florida. It's home to two malls, 38 hotels, 250-plus restaurants, 4,000 businesses, 14,000 residents and nearly 100,000 workers.

State planners also think it's the perfect area to build the transportation hub of the future — be it light rail, bus rapid transit or a combination — that could one day link Pinellas to Hillsborough and eventually Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties.

The project is called the Westshore Multimodal Center. A Florida Department of Transportation feasibility study determined that such a hub will be needed to link whatever mass transit systems — what FDOT calls "premium transit" systems — that leaders and voters in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties decide to one day build in the bay area.

"We're looking at what the regional premium transit network might look like," said FDOT district planning manager Ming Gao. "It could be light rail. It could be bus rapid transit. It could be a different or new type of technology."

There are two components of the Westshore mulitmodal project. One is a platform that would be built between the interstate from N Trask Street to N Manhattan Avenue. That's where people would get on or off the "premium transit" system that would be built between north and southbound I-275.

The second component is a combination light rail/bus station/parking garage that would allow riders to park and use the "premium transit" system of the future. It would be built alongside the interstate, and a walkway of some kind would be built over the lanes, linking the station to the platform.

The FDOT specs call for a 10,000-square-foot building at least two stories tall that would have at least 750 parking spaces. It would ideally have space for administrative offices, restaurants and retail, bike racks and lockers and be pedestrian- and bike-friendly.

FDOT has chosen four sites near I-275 for the Westshore center. The next step, in the coming years, is to fund a study to pare them down to one. The sites are: the north parking garage of Westshore Plaza; the Charley's Steakhouse property at 4444 W Cypress St.; a Jefferson High School parking lot; and parking garages along Trask and Cypress streets.

The center won't be built, of course, until both sides of the bay adopt some kind of mass transit system. The plan is in place for when — or if — that time comes.

So state planners have a way. It's the will that has been the problem.

In 2010 Hillsborough voters rejected a 1-cent sales tax hike that would have funded light rail, doubled the number of buses and improved local roads. Political leaders there have just started recovering from the loss. Pinellas County voters will answer the same question in 2014: Will they pay for light rail on their side of the bay?

But the cart isn't exactly before the horse here. In many ways, despite recent setbacks, Tampa Bay's transportation future is already coming into focus:

• The completion of the I-275 widening project between State Road 60 and downtown Tampa is set for 2016. But FDOT is leaving a 44-foot corridor between the north and south lanes. If Hillsborough voters one day approve a light rail or bus rapid transit system, that's where it will go — and it will lead right to the proposed Westshore center.

• The aging northbound Howard Frankland Bridge span is set to be replaced sometime around 2020. State and local transportation planners see that as an opportunity to extend mass transit across the bay and link Pinellas and Hillsborough by something other than cars. The Pinellas rail plan envisions one day connecting the Gateway area station to the Westshore facility.

• There's also a study being done to analyze whether premium transit should also link West­shore to Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties. That could come in the form of bus rapid transit — a high-end, higher-capacity bus service that travels along dedicated lanes.

• In reaction to Pinellas' referendum, the Hillsborough County Commission voted unanimously last month to hold a transportation summit with the mayors of Plant City, Tampa and Temple Terrace and the county's transportation officials.

"The department looked at all the projects," Gao said. "What we were looking for is: Where is the best place for an intermodal center for customers and passengers going from one county to another?"

The proposal is already on the radars of government agencies and planning bodies across the bay area. The Hillsborough County Aviation Authority board will vote on a new master plan for Tampa International Airport on Thursday . The airport's plan suggests extending a new people-mover south to the new multimodal center.

"What we're proposing is a way to connect to a future regional transportation system," said airport spokeswoman Janet Zink. "It would allow people to come, ultimately, from the Pinellas beaches and the far reaches of Hillsborough and Pasco counties to that stop, and make it easier to get to the airport."

Jamal Thalji can be reached at thalji@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3404.

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