TAMPA, Fla. — With soaring gas prices and growth in the Tampa Bay area booming, local transit leaders said it would be great to have an alternative to skip past the gridlock. Passenger rail is once again rising to the top of the list.
“We can’t keep widening all of our roads without taking out our businesses and our neighborhoods,” said Chelsea Favero, the Planning Manager at Forward Pinellas.
“Congestion is probably the greatest marketing tool that you can have for a rail transit system,” said Carl Mikyska, the Executive Director at Pasco County Metropolitan Planning Organization. “You’re sitting in traffic and you look over to the side and you see train car as it zips by you as you’re in bumper-to-bumper traffic. And you think why am I not in there?
The discussion on rail is nothing new. But transit leaders in Hillsborough, Pasco, and Pinellas said this time it's different — they’re all on the same page.
“Anytime you can get the elected officials from across the bay coming together to talk about priorities in speaking with one voice I think it’s a fantastic thing,” said Favero.
And, they said the state and the Florida Department of Transportation are on board.
“It was always locally generated, locally developed and the state was kinda sitting on the sidelines, saying well if you do this this and this we make consider helping you,” said Whit Blanton, the Executive Director of Forward Pinellas. “It’s a very different message the state is saying now, we think we need to be engaged, we need to be a partner, and we need to develop a policy of what that looks like going forward.”
In 2011, the state bought 61.5 miles of track in the Orlando area from CSX which is now Sunrail. But Blanton said the Tampa Bay area may not be able to rely on that existing track here.
“CSX does not want to sell those CSX owned rail lines right now and that’s a different story than it was six years ago,” he said. “If they’re not willing to sell, I’m not really sure what alternative we have negotiating with CSX.”
Of course, another challenge comes down to money — who will fund the project? Blanton believes the U.S. government will cover 75% of the cost to build, but then the question is who pays to maintain, operate, and keep those tracks viable?
“This is an issue, the funding of operations, it bedevils the transit systems nationally,” said Mikyska. “it’s not exclusive to the Tampa region. And that will be one of the big questions that we have to address going forward.”
The Suncoast Transportation Planning Alliance made up of officials from Pasco, Pinellas and Hillsborough will meet Friday, March 11 to talk more about their plan. The meeting is open to the public.