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Tampa rail plans coming into focus

(The following story by Ted Jackovics appeared on the Tampa Tribune website on September 6, 2009.)

TAMPA, Fla. — Plans for light rail in Hillsborough County are becoming more detailed as local officials get closer to asking taxpayers to pay for it.

The latest proposal envisions 40 miles of track, implemented in stages beginning with a downtown Tampa-University of South Florida route by 2018.

Four more light rail segments are proposed to serve downtown Tampa-West Shore in 2021, New Tampa in 2024, Linebaugh Avenue in the northwest by 2027 and Brandon in 2032.

Also, a sixth light rail line between downtown and South Tampa, roughly between Gandy Boulevard and the Selmon Crosstown Expressway, has been added in the 30-year projection.

Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority will introduce the plan to a county commission transportation task force Wednesday.

"The idea is to link where people live to business centers, initially," Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio said Thursday. "That is the best plan for [light rail] success, at first."

That means Tampa International Airport would not be on the county's light rail line, a strategy airport director Louis Miller endorses.

Nearly 50,000 passengers a day pass through the airport, but only 33.6 percent of departing passengers originate in Hillsborough. Light rail advocates, including Miller, say a link between the airport and downtown might not be the most sensible initial stage.

Eventually, however, "Tampa International should become a key component of light rail, with trains going through the airport to serve areas to the north and west, in addition to downtown," Miller said. He pointed to Salt Lake City, Charlotte, N.C., and Denver, where rail links to airports have not been established.

Iorio also said that regardless of where a north-south route is in a corridor HART has under study between Florida Avenue and 40th Street, she would not endorse a bus rapid-transit link in lieu of light rail.

Discussions about a busing alternative have circulated among those in the community who have closely watched light rail plans evolve. If the route didn't use nearby CSX track between USF and downtown, planners might endorse bus rapid transit along the Interstate 275 corridor instead.

"We know what happened in Orlando when they got involved with CSX," Iorio said about a commuter line that lost state support at the last moment because of differences with CSX contract demands. "But we need rail between downtown and USF."

The Hillsborough light rail network — at least the first segments — would provide the first rail system in a seven-county mass transit network orchestrated by the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority. Until now, the most detailed plans for Hillsborough and the other six counties are concepts TBARTA has developed to gauge demand and costs on travel corridors throughout the region.

TBARTA approved a master plan in May with bus and rail corridors that link each county's system as they are funded and brought on line.

"We have got to make sure that as we are doing this, we ensure the connectivity between regions," said Bob Clifford, executive director of TBARTA.

Despite TBARTA's presence, HART must take over the role within Hillsborough County, Iorio said.

That's because HART will run the county's mass transit network. And in a short time, the county must develop specific proposals so taxpayers can understand what they would get if they vote to provide sales tax dollars for transportation.

HART also is proposing new bus service that would include five rapid-transit routes, where buses get signal priority at certain intersections and there are off-board fare sales at some stations and stops at larger stations. There would also be nine express routes, 10 more local routes, a neighborhood feeder service and "community circulators" that serve downtown, West Shore and USF.

Still to be determined is whether county commissioners would support a referendum to raise the sales tax for a combination of new mass transit along with highway, bicycle and pedestrian improvements.

If a referendum is held, it would be in November 2010. A 1-cent increase would raise a family's annual taxes by about $140, a county Metropolitan Planning Organization study has found.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

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