Iorio Talks Transit Vision

Published: May 30, 2008


These are painful times for local governments. State-mandated spending restrictions and a voter-approved amendment limiting property taxes are forcing budget cuts and a reordering of priorities.

Yet Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio, in her fifth year in office, seemed anything but dispirited during a recent visit to The Tampa Tribune's Editorial Board, where the conversation focused on transportation.

Despite skeptics' claims that transit is inordinately expensive, the mayor brimmed with confidence that mass transit will be in the community's not-so-distant future and that residents will come to recognize that light rail is cheaper than building ever more highways.

The following are excerpts from the interview.

Q: After the state Legislature ended, an Orlando congressman, John Mica, said Tampa's transit plans will suffer if Orlando doesn't get the CSX-commuter rail deal. Should we be worried?

A: I wish Central Florida well, and I commend them for their planning for commuter rail, but I don't see much of a connection between what happened there and what we're planning, except for a learning lesson.

The only benefit to us being the last metropolitan area in the country to have a viable mass-transit system is that we get to learn from everyone's mistakes. We can learn from this. The CSX plan was not transparent. But for a Tribune reporter, many of the legislators said they didn't know about it. The whole issue of assuming the liability became a big issue and so viability issues came up and the deal didn't go forward as it had been negotiated.

What does that mean for us?

1. Make sure that any deal that TBARTA (the year-old Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority) puts together is very transparent and everyone involved knows exactly what's been agreed to and make sure the public knows what's been agreed to before there's a referendum.

2. I don't think we should rely on CSX for mass transit in the Tampa Bay area. What if we were a community without major freight lines? Would we just throw up our hands and say we'd never have light rail? We've been bringing in people from throughout the country - the Denver experience, the Phoenix experience. The focus in the Tampa area and the TBARTA service area is light rail. Light rail isn't commuter rail; they're two entirely different things.

Commuter rail are the long stretches... You might have only one or two stops. It's heavy rail that typically utilizes freight lines. Light rail is what you experience when you get on the New York subway or the Washington subway system or Charlotte or Phoenix or Denver or Dallas. It's a stand-alone system, and it has multiple train stops and the cars can hold hundreds of people, but you stop here and there and there and you use it to go to work or to the Bucs game or go downtown to experience the Riverwalk and the museums. Q:Where are we in terms of planning for light rail?

A: I think it's great that we have TBARTA, because we're bringing together seven counties and we're looking at this regionally. In terms of congestion and population and urban centers, any light-rail system would start in Hillsborough County. There is a line already that needs to be fleshed out and see if that can't be the starter line of the system. It starts in the university area, it goes down to downtown, to WestShore and to the airport. Louis Miller and the Aviation Authority have conducted a study to see how that line would move from Boy Scout Boulevard through the airport. That should be our focal point for our starter line of the light-rail system, which one day would go to most of the seven counties. I say most because Citrus County is pretty rural and it's hard to think of light rail there, but maybe at some point.

Q: Does the corridor already have track or is it empty land?

A: Part of it does contemplate using CSX rail lines. I tend to disagree with that approach, though. I think we have to be masters of our own destiny in creating a transit system. I believe too much reliance on CSX will be our undoing in building a rail system.

Q: Why is that?

A: Because CSX is a company that focuses on moving freight. They are focused on their bottom line, which is fine. They're a private company. You can only have effective public-private partnerships when the company you're partnering with has a public heart. When the public is important... Perhaps my experience has been colored a bit because of how much liability insurance we have to pay every year just for that one (downtown) crossing of our streetcar.

Q: Say more about that experience.

A: The previous administration had agreed to $500 million of insurance for the streetcar line for that one crossing. When I became mayor, they said we need that $500 million. In fact, they said they were going to shut down the streetcar. Fred Karl was my city attorney at the time, and we sat down with them and said, 'Don't shut down the streetcar. Give us some time to work on getting this insurance.' A year and a half later, we finally were able to obtain $100 million worth of insurance and finally got them to agree to $100 million of insurance instead of $500 million because Fred was able to convince them that we just could not ever obtain $500 million worth of insurance.

That policy has cost the streetcar corporation about $400,000 a year. Prior to that, we had to have the flagman stand there for a cost of $370,000 a year. This has been my experience with CSX.

Now we're talking about building a light-rail system that's going through multiple neighborhoods and have development at the various stations. We're talking about a whole different way of moving people. Why can't we be masters of our own destiny and go out there and purchase the right-of-way and lay our own track, but make sure it's track that's ours and that we can control. People are only going to ride light rail if they know that when they miss a train the next one is in 10 minutes. You can't guarantee people that kind of frequency when you have to rely on a company that's moving freight. I say we chart our own course.

Q: What about the cost?

A: I can't wait to make the case for how much rail is going to save us once all the numbers are in. I just had a meeting in New Tampa on roads. Pasco's spending $415 million to widen some roads up there and the DOT is spending $70 million to add a lane, and you know how much everyone is spending for something that's not even going to really help people in New Tampa that much? I'm not counting the East-West road which isn't going to happen. I'm not counting the full widening of Bruce B. Downs to eight lanes, which is ridiculous. A billion dollars!

I added it up in my head as everyone was going around the room; these are things that are actually funded. I'm not even getting into the unfunded stuff. That's another half a billion. Add up the interstate costs that DOT just finished with I-4, the 10-year plan to widen the interstate by one lane all the way to St. Pete and the whole interchange around the airport.

When you're done adding up all the billions, next time somebody says it's going to cost you $2 billion to buy the right-of-way for this light-rail system, compare it to these road widenings that are not congestion-proof and do not substantially improve the quality of life of people. Historically - this has happened for the past 25 years - the people who don't want rail will always say, "The price!" Well I say look at the price of the roads, because the price of the roads is astronomical. I'd rather spend the money on buying the right-of-way to own our own rail system that can offer the kind of flexibility and frequency that will actually get people to ride it.

Q: Is the plan you support based on (former County Commissioner Ed) Turanchik's rail plan?

A: No. Turanchik's plan was more of a commuter line out to Lakeland, too. This is an MPO plan that was a 1995 plan and was part of the plan that the County Commission shelved when they weren't interested in any referendum. We're really back at that point.

It's a viable plan and it's where people live, and after spending a couple of days in New Tampa, if we don't provide light rail for the residents of New Tampa, that area will be completely gridlocked.

From the briefing I received, their road improvements that are slated to be made are not going to make a substantial difference in the movement of people because you can eight-lane Bruce B. Downs, but ultimately that's going to funnel right back down to the interstate system, which is not planned for widening and Bearss Avenue. So what is the answer for people up there? We've got to be honest about things like that. So we've got to talk about rail.

Q: Some county leaders argue that Hillsborough residents don't want light rail and will never give up their cars. Are gas prices affecting the public's desire for light rail?

A: Absolutely. Ridership in HART is up 8 percent, and even by HART's own admission it's not a very robust bus system. They had an 11 percent increase last year and 8 percent this year. Imagine if you had a robust system. Imagine if you missed a bus and you knew that another one was coming in 10 minutes and it led to a light-rail system that could get you to downtown St. Pete or the airport.

Transit is the one thing we truly lack. It's one of the key reasons why we lost the Republican Convention. It was the key factor in the decision not to have the Olympics here. And it is a key factor when people look at our area and analyze it on paper. We've got to do our work and get it done.

The reason why people can't imagine themselves riding it is because they're not presented with a plan that is viable. When we visit these other cities we're going to see beautiful (train) cars, really neat stations, development at stations. The guy from Phoenix said that each station has attracted billions of dollars of investment in beautiful retail and condos and all kinds of things.

Why wouldn't people want to ride a system like that? Could the people in the Tampa Bay area be that different from people in other parts of the country? Different from Salt Lake City? Different from Phoenix? Different from Dallas? Different from Denver? We're so different that we wouldn't ride a system that is successful in every other major metropolitan area? I do hope that in my time as mayor, I have the opportunity to go out and sell a system that I can believe in and believe will be the nucleus of a great light-rail system for the region.

Q: Do you think there'll be a viable plan by the time your term ends?

A: I hope so. If TBARTA can do its work quickly and if we can take that MPO plan and get down to some details, I think we could be ready for a referendum in 2010.

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