The light rail monrail


TAMPA - The Tampa Rail Project dodged a bullet this month in a vote some transit leaders say could have proved fatal.
Just how alive the light rail proposal is, however, remains to be seen.

``I have grave concerns,'' said Jan Platt, a Hillsborough County commissioner on the board of the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority.

``We really don't know what's going to happen,'' said Lucie Ayer, head of the Hillsborough Metropolitan Planning Organization.

After years of studies and public hearings, the transit board voted in October 2001 to build a 20-mile light rail system connecting downtown Tampa and Ybor City with the West Shore business district and the University of South Florida.

The HARTline vote didn't open any checkbooks, though, and funding for the $1.4 billion project is elusive.

Half of that money, more than $700 million, is supposed to come from the Federal Transit Administration, which approved the project a year ago. The agency has not specifically recommended funding the project, however, citing a lack of local support.

HARTline suggested that more than one-third of the project's cost could be funded with a local sales tax increase that has not reached a public ballot for consideration.

In an annual report, the national agency warned that the project could lose its shot at federal funding if ``progress is not made on improving its financial status.''

Falling off the government list, behind dozens of other communities seeking a limited pool of start-up dollars, would be fatal, HARTline officials and rail supporters fear.

Jan Smith, who chaired the HARTline board that approved the project in 2001, said local leaders must not let years of work languish.

``We are going to be sadly lacking if we don't have the chutzpah to step up to the table and try to get these funds,'' Smith said. ``If we have forward-thinking, visionary people in places of political influence, we will. If we don't, we won't.''

Worth The Investment?

The HARTline board was nearing the close of its April 5 meeting when member Steve Polzin raised the question: Why was the agency planning to spend $65,000 on consulting work for a light rail system that appears light years away?

``I'm trying to make this board make a very deliberate decision on whether or not they want to continue to invest in it in light of the prospects of local funding being available to do something with it,'' said Polzin, a USF transportation researcher.

HARTline Executive Director Sharon Dent argued that the consulting work, including $15,000 worth now and an additional $50,000 through 2006, was necessary to keep Tampa's rail project in good federal standing.

The consultant would be paid to prepare annual project updates for the federal agency, including one due in August. Failure to meet the deadline would be a fatal flaw, Dent warned.

``If you tell me not to authorize this task order, you've just killed the rail project, and you made that decision today, so you need to understand it,'' she said.

Platt balked at Polzin's suggestion, saying, ``I'm concerned that some little motion like this could put the brakes on rail.''

Ultimately, board members approved the first $15,000 of work, given to Gannett Fleming of Camp Hill, Pa. They also signed off on the second phase with the caveat that they could cancel the rest of the contract at any time.

Beyond that money, though, is the billion-dollar question of what will become of light rail. Platt anticipates a full-bore discussion soon.

``I think the future of rail is going to be decided in the very near future,'' she said.

Long-Range Planning

If it's not decided by HARTline, it could be decided by the Metropolitan Planning Organization.

The organization is updating its long-range transportation plan, a document that includes the rail project at this point. It's time again to revisit the plan, and some rail supporters worry that the planning board will target their effort for elimination.

Such a decision would erase several million dollars worth of work and thwart any hope of opening by the plan's horizon date of 2025, said HARTline spokesman Ed Crawford, an avid rail proponent.

``If you get bumped out of the queue, if this thing somehow falls off the feds' radar screen, and if our report doesn't remain updated ... it's highly likely that those kind of time horizons go way out the window,'' Crawford said.

Tampa deserves rail of the type that works in Salt Lake City, Denver, Houston, Dallas and Portland, Ore., Crawford said, even if some question whether Tampa is in the same league.

``You by no means have compelling community consensus,'' Polzin said. ``They want strong, viable projects. They don't want laggards. This is not a slam dunk by any stretch of the imagination.''

HARTline has predicted about 30,000 people would ride the rail daily.

There is also the matter of HARTline's credibility, though.

Dent recently took a verbal beating from county commissioners, who expressed ``no confidence'' in her leadership. A county auditor found questionable spending practices on the agency's other rail project, the TECO Line Streetcar System. Federal transit investigators have been asking questions about the streetcar woes.

Some of the loudest critics of HARTline leadership have been among the vocal opponents of the streetcar.

Crawford acknowledged that the agency's credibility could play a role - ``I haven't been living under a rock,'' he said - but he also wondered whether recent criticism is part of a concerted effort to derail light rail.

``Is this all part of the plan?'' he said.


June 25, 2004

TAMPA - Advocating for a local light rail system, Tampa International Airport director Louis Miller said planners must enlist community interest to fund construction of a rail network to link the airport, downtown and outlying residential areas.
Pinellas County eventually should be included in a light rail network that cities nationwide have embraced, Miller said Thursday in launching the airport's update of its 20-year master plan, which calls for a new runway, another main terminal and other improvements.

``We have had plans for a light rail network on our master plan since 1999, and we realize it will not happen overnight,'' Miller said. ``However, light rail can help avoid significant capital investments for roadways and parking.''

Miller's comments punctuated the first of a series of aviation authority workshops that will include public sessions as part of updating the airport's long-range plan for 2005 to 2025.

In the short run, Tampa International is on target with construction of a new Airside C, scheduled for completion by April 2005. The 16-gate terminal mostly will serve Southwest Airlines.

The airport continues work on a remote parking garage. The first phase of construction will add 3,966 spaces by Thanksgiving 2005; the second phase will add 1,705 a year later; future expansion could add 2,330.

Over the next two decades, Tampa International is expected to add a third north-south runway near the Veterans Expressway to handle an ever-increasing number of flights, giving the airport four runways overall.

It expects to construct an additional main terminal north of the current terminal complex and add parking, building two terminals for light rail if that system is implemented.

Tampa International will prepare for a new generation of 550-passenger jets, although few of those giant aircraft are expected to serve Tampa soon. The airport's runways could handle the Airbus A380, expected to enter service in 2006, but taxiways must be modified because of the A380's wingspan.

The current long-range plan envisions the new runway by 2012 and the new terminal by about 2020.

Ricondo & Associates of Chicago, consultants for the new master plan, retained seven other firms to contribute to the update, expected to be ready by November 2005.

The aviation authority also will consider a University of South Florida proposal to create an economic impact study for the airport, which could become part of the master plan.

Miller said that in the long term, the area might consider a regional approach to airport planning that would include Sarasota Bradenton International and St. Petersburg- Clearwater International airports.

Tampa International, which draws 32.7 percent of its passengers from Pinellas County and an additional 10 percent or more from Manatee and Sarasota counties, expects to learn - when consultants update data - that it draws even more passengers from outlying areas.

That makes ground transportation planning even more critical because gridlock would hinder Tampa International's chances of maintaining its growth and sustaining area economic development, said Hillsborough County Aviation Authority Commissioner Stephen Mitchell, a Tampa lawyer who has served on various local transportation boards.

``Light rail would affect people every day as they go to work, compared with the occasional travel people would make between Tampa and Orlando,'' said Mitchell of the two proposed rail systems.

Miller pointed out that 20 percent of the passengers who use Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport use the capital's rail system to get to their flights.

In January, Houston launched the first 8-mile section of a light rail system that took 25 years of planning.

Atlanta long has benefited from its rail connections to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, Mitchell said. In recent months, John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York and Newark Liberty International Airport have added rail connections.


I am happy to see this. Originally the airport, for some unknown reason, did not want a conncetion to the planned train. Now they want it and the airport has some political pull in this town.


I'm glad they see the value in light rail, and they recognize that it should be a regional effort.


I think there is little chance for region action unless Jim Sebesta or someone forces a regional agency down everyone's throat. Other wise we will (maybe) get two systems that don't talk to each other.

(comments) Guess we should write ole Sen. Sebesta a letter or two.

Good idea.

(comments) It would be pointless to have two separate systems that don't interact.

(comments) At any rate, if there are two systems built, I see rail going in Hillsborough before Pinellas. With a truly centralized central city (that's the center for the county as well as the entire region), the idea could be sold easier. Also, Pinellas is just too suburban in style of development and thinking. Until Gateway and Central Pinellas develops into the mega-employment center it wantes to be (a la Westshore), and traffic gets to the point where it's fruitless to build more road, they won't see a need.

February 9, 2005

For the third year in a row, the transit administration has passed on the county's plan, meaning it will no longer be considered for federal funds.

First, Florida voters rescinded their earlier endorsement of a high-speed rail system to link the Tampa Bay area with Orlando.

Now, Hillsborough County transit officials have learned that their own flirtation with localized light rail has come off track.

"For now' is the appropriate qualifier," said Steven Polzin, a board member for Hillsborough Area Regional Transit.

The agency, which runs the county's bus system and trolley, has long hoped to add rail to its list.

The Federal Transit Administration has notified HARTline that the light rail proposal will not make a list of projects recommended to receive money for planning and construction. It's the third consecutive year that HARTline's light rail proposal has gotten a not recommended rating on the "Annual Report on New Starts."

With that third strike, HARTline's proposed light rail system will no longer be considered for future federal spending, FTA regional administrator Hiram Walker has informed the transit agency.

"In essence, we've lost our place in line," said Hillsborough Commissioner Kathy Castor, who sits on the HARTline board.

In the letter, Walker said HARTline has failed to secure a dedicated local money source to match with federal dollars. The agency also has been unable to provide reliable ridership projections or analysis of travel-time benefits for commuters.

Until it provides those assurances, it won't be considered for future money.

"The project is Not Recommended in FY2006 due to the absence of a current capital and operating financial plan to evaluate," Walker wrote. "Previously submitted plans demonstrated a lack of financial commitment to the project and a heavy reliance on the passage of a local sales tax referendum that has been continuously postponed."

HARTline officials say the letter essentially kills light rail in Hillsborough County any time in the near future. And it means the agency will focus more on improving bus service.

"We've got a lot of rebuilding to do at HARTline," said Castor. "We've got to start to foster trust in the HARTline administration."

Local elected officials have discussed building a light-rail system for more than a decade. Over time, a large-scale system was pared to a much smaller 20.1-mile network, with estimated costs to build it at $1.46 billion, a price that includes park-and-ride lots, 26 stations and 34 light-rail cars.

HARTline was seeking federal money to pay for half of those costs, said Jill Cappadoro, director of public relations for the agency.

The proposed system would have included one leg running out of downtown, through Ybor City to north of the University of South Florida. A second spoke would have run roughly west out of downtown along Kennedy Boulevard to West Shore Boulevard. There was another link to Tampa International Airport.

But the proposal drew a sharp dividing line among politicians, with many conservatives vehemently opposing it. Hillsborough commissioners, for instance, have twice considered a series of tax and fee increases to pay for transportation projects.

Both efforts died, and light rail failed to even make the list of projects that could get money had they passed. So the system has languished on a long-term list of transportation "needs" by the Hillsborough Metropolitan Planning Organization and wasn't slated to be built for another two decades.

The agency has recently come under question for alleged financial irregularities. Its pursuit of light-rail was perceived by some conservative Hillsborough commissioners as disregard for public will.

Polzin, vice chairman of HARTline and director of transportation research at the Center for Urban Transportation Research, said the transit agency has arguably spent too much time on an idea that clearly lacks broad political support. He said HARTline should spend more effort on improving bus ridership, which is showing gains.

Polzin said some of his fellow board members feel bad about the news - that failing to pursue rail will one day relegate Tampa to second-class status among major cities.

"There are others who feel like the public is probably not there right now and that we're prudent to move on to solutions that make more sense at this point in time," he said. "I'm personally in the camp that we have spent too much time on something that is perhaps too visionary."