1. Opinion

Ruth: Tampa on lonely ground without airport link to downtown

Published Apr. 25, 2014

What might we call this sad story of urban public transit myopia? A Tale of Two Pities?

As the New York Times recently reported, for decades this locale has found itself mired in numerous fits and starts to finally develop a commuter rail line from the city to its bustling international airport.

The effort has become bogged down in political in-fighting, jurisdictional feuds, broken promises, inflated projections, delays, cost overruns and Rube Goldberg-like design planning.

Sound familiar? But the piece about unfulfilled potential, lost time and parochial hissy fits wasn't about Tampa, although it could be. It was about Los Angeles and the long-running inability to connect the city's commuter rail system to Los Angeles International Airport.

Or, put another way, with the exception of Tampa and L.A., the other major metro areas — Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington, New York, Boston, Atlanta, Portland, Minneapolis, Seattle, Newark, Phoenix, Miami and San Francisco — all have rail connections between their airports and the city center.

And now it seems, in relatively short order, that Tampa is about to lose its Sad Sack sister city of transit stumblebums. We're Number Last! Now there's a chamber of commerce point of pride for you.

At least L.A. got a little bit ahead of the game years ago when it created a complex of metro rail lines to serve the area. The final piece was an LAX connection that fell victim to years of competing agendas, including a decision to end the commuter rail line to the terminal, some 2 1/2 miles from the third-largest airport in the nation. That's so, so, very Tampa-like.

Given the numerous municipalities the L.A. area's rail line traverses to get to LAX, the political gyrations would seem to be all the more daunting. But the powers that be managed to navigate the multitude of egos, agendas and local, state and federal agencies to set a path toward connecting L.A.'s Greenline to the airport.

But not here, where it would seem since Tampa International Airport lies within Tampa's city limits, the challenge to at last drag the community into the 21st century of transit would be marginally less fractious.

Much like LAX, TIA already has the infrastructure in place to accommodate a rail connection. Think of it as the urban planner's answer to Stonehenge.

What's lacking, of course, is consensus, leadership and, yes, a coherent sense of vision to convince the public that an airport rail connection would be a really good idea.

Perhaps nothing captures the shortsightedness of the Tampa Bay region to get much beyond 1971 when TIA first opened is the ongoing I-275 construction, otherwise known as the Dante's Inferno of gridlock.

Dirt, dirt, dirt everywhere. Shifting lanes. Lane closures. Seas of red rear lights. Bulldozers. Cones. Signs blinking "Time to I-4 — 12 Days." Amazed gawking imbeciles who apparently have never seen a car with a flat tire before. And, of course, legions of guys leaning on their shovels. This is progress?

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Since we've already turned I-275 into the Panama Canal, wouldn't it have made sense to simply create a rail pathway to TIA in anticipation of the day when Tampa might finally create a choo-choo system linking the airport to the rest of civilization?

Ah, but when you're Number Last, progress is the last thing on your mind.


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