Experts often suggest that the key to amassing public support for a comprehensive transit system is simply to start somewhere — build one rail line first, then expand as riders come to appreciate the benefits. But an inappropriate starter line could sour the public on mass transit for good. At this point, either outcome could apply to the notion that old CSX freight tracks might launch Tampa Bay into the era of modern mass transit. The idea is worth exploring, but public officials should tread carefully.
It's far from certain that it makes sense to commit tax dollars to a sprawling commuter rail line that carves a long, meandering route between downtown Tampa and downtown St. Petersburg and bypasses the jobs-rich office complexes of West Shore and the Pinellas Gateway altogether. The Tampa Bay area needs mass transit to compete effectively in the global marketplace. Sometimes, though, nothing beats something.
Railroad giant CSX is talking to the Florida Department of Transportation about selling 96 miles of little-used freight track that stretch between Brooksville and Tampa, with a spur over the top of Tampa Bay to Clearwater and St. Petersburg. A regional transit authority could run heavy commuter rail cars over the track, with CSX paying a lease fee to run freight during off hours. The model is Central Florida's 61-mile SunRail system, which opened last year as a four-county joint venture centered in Orlando.
The prospect holds some allure. With some modification and addition, it could link the University of South Florida with a multimodal transit hub in downtown Tampa, with future high-speed connections to Central Florida and light rail or modern tram connections to West Shore, Gateway and downtown St. Petersburg. A spur line that runs down to the northern edge of Tampa International Airport could theoretically link air passenger traffic to Clearwater and USF. Westchase residents could commute quickly to downtown Tampa and USF. Depending on the sale price, right of way costs could be significantly lower than most alternatives.
But none of those potential advantages necessarily justifies what could turn out to be a suboptimal rail network — even if federal and state governments shoulder three-quarters of the cost, as they did with SunRail. Other than for the USF-downtown Tampa leg, ridership levels could be weak for decades.
Most important of all, the CSX network bypasses what transit experts call the "home run line" — a direct, dense light rail route over the Howard Frankland Bridge between downtown Tampa and downtown St. Petersburg that includes the area's major employment and residential hubs as well as TIA. Commuter rail systems are too heavy to cross the Howard Frankland. The CSX purchase will work only if it augments reasonably quick construction of that home run line.
Over the next four to seven years, the Tampa Bay delegation will likely wield hefty clout in Tallahassee, with local legislators holding key leadership posts. The CSX network holds attractive possibilities for Pasco and Hernando counties and could provide impetus for a long-overdue regional transit agency with operational and taxing authority. But the CSX network must make fiscal and strategic sense.
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Voters in both Pinellas and Hillsborough counties have already rejected light rail referendums, and the Go Hillsborough plan for the 2016 ballot appears to be on shaky political ground. Citizens will be in no mood to support a mass transit plan that springs more from political muscle and windows of opportunity than from a clear-headed, comprehensive vision for the future.
State and local officials delving deeper into the CSX plan must make sure that sale price, construction costs, operating expenses, ridership levels and liability risks match its inherent value to the commuting public and economic development along the route.
First steps are fine — as long as they do not go backward.