Tampa Bay's connection to Florida's two other largest metropolitan areas is poised to strengthen with Wednesday's decision by the state to move ahead with a proposal by operator Brightline to create fast passenger train service between Tampa and Orlando. The service would represent a new era in cross-state travel, making the region more attractive to business and tourism alike, further modernizing the area's transportation system and energizing its major destinations. The state needs to craft a fair and responsible deal for the transit corridors that provides travelers with access and affordability, and any service into Tampa should offer easy connections to St. Petersburg, Clearwater and the tourist-heavy Gulf beaches.
A selection committee from the Florida Department of Transportation and the Central Florida Expressway Authority agreed Wednesday to award Brightline the right to negotiate for leases to the right-of-way it needs to operate the $1.7 billion privately financed rail line. Brightline — soon to be known as Virgin Trains USA, after the Virgin Group acquired a stake in the company — already runs passenger train service between Miami and West Palm Beach, with plans to expand to Orlando. As envisioned, the company would use parts of the right-of-way along Interstate 4, the Florida Turnpike and other area routes to extend its reach westward into Tampa with one-hour service from Orlando on trains that would reach 125 mph.
Brightline was the sole bidder for the project, and it still faces considerable work in securing all necessary federal, state and local approvals, which makes Wednesday's step less dramatic than it may seem. Still, it's an exciting concept backed by savvy, deep-pocketed investors that would fill a crucial missing link in the state's transportation grid. The parties will negotiate over the next 90 days, with Brightline looking to launch service in 2021.
The state has sent the right signals at the outset, insisting the company would have to pay fair market rates for the leases and that there would be "no subsidy of any kind." The deal needs to protect taxpayers from any cost overruns and area residents from any safety issues or disruptions in street-level traffic. Allowing Brightline to operate in a public right of way also gives the state leverage to push for affordable passenger fares.
Brightline's business model involves developing property around its terminals, which is good news for the prospective stations between downtown Tampa and Ybor City. Much of that area is undergoing a building boom. Its central location already has made it the preferred home for a new stadium for the Tampa Bay Rays. The 30-year transportation tax Hillsborough County voters approved this month will help provide the local mass transit connections that the train station would need. The presence of Virgin and its dynamic founder, Sir Richard Branson, also cannot be overstated. Virgin Atlantic operates 17 flights a week between the United Kingdom and Orlando International Airport, and a sleek passenger train would be a new way for thousands of tourists to reach the bay area and the Gulf beaches. Branson, who in 2000 famously arrived on skis to an awards banquet in his honor at the Vinoy Renaissance Hotel in St. Petersburg, is a master marketeer with deep interests throughout the travel industry. It only makes sense that any train service to Tampa have easy connections to the broader market across the region.
Wednesday's announcement comes as the state is about to begin work to ease the bottleneck on the Tampa side of the Howard Frankland Bridge. The DOT deserves credit for listening to area commuters and speeding up a fix to a chronic intercity problem, a reminder of the need to find convenient and speedy ways to cross Tampa Bay no matter the mode of transportation. Brightline and Virgin should follow the state's example, and reach out to neighborhoods that could be affected by the Tampa route to find ways to soften the impacts. As the DOT can attest, this outreach could save everybody time, money and hassle. It's also the right thing to do. But Wednesday's decision marks another major, encouraging step for transportation across the region. And it furthers Tampa Bay's maturity as a metropolitan area.