Rail system a road less traveled

By ROBERT TRIGAUX, Times Business Columnist
Published August 7, 2006

We are already losing out to other parts of the state and the nation for state and federal funding ... Tampa Bay cannot afford to wait any longer to get serious about improving its transportation system.

- Tampa Bay Partnership, regional economic development group, May 2006

In an era when traffic congestion increasingly controls the fate of economic development, last week's strikingly different regional transportation "solutions" unveiled by Tampa Bay and Orlando revealed which metro area's looking clearly to the future.

The bay area voted for more asphalt when Hillsborough County commissioners approved a proposed beltway stretching from northwest Manatee County, looping just east of densely packed Hillsborough, then extending into Pasco before possibly dipping into northern Pinellas.

Orlando opted for mass transit. Florida Gov. Jeb Bush last week visited Orlando with check in hand to bless a new commuter-rail system that would carry passengers - yes, that will include care-free, car-free workers - through four counties north and south starting in 2009.

Let's briefly praise the actions of both fast-growing regions in Central Florida. Each metro area in its own way acknowledged the state's highway system is woefully behind the volume of vehicles it must handle. Recent efforts to improve Interstate 275's Malfunction Junction, reopen the Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway in Tampa and, in Orlando, to widen hellish Interstate 4 are commendable. But all are too little, too late.

The bay area's embrace of a beltway road, right or wrong, follows the well-worn path of larger metro areas that sought to expand their footprint while spreading the flow of traffic away from their congested downtowns. Anybody who's suffered the brake-and-creep driving styles on the beltways of greater Atlanta or Washington, D.C., knows what's ahead for a population-soaring area like this one. A beltway is a magnet for adjacent development, which, in turn, will quickly jam the new roads. Regional economists also blame beltways for accelerating sprawl.

For all our best intentions, we seem unable to avoid the traffic fate of these bigger-sister metro markets. Our mantra remains "more roads" - at an astonishing construction price tag approaching $50-million per mile.

In Orlando, Bush christened the proposed rail line, which will be built on CSX railroad tracks, and quickly got to the heart of its benefits.

"Establishing commuter rail will ease congestion, which will improve the quality of life of people both on and off the road," he said. "Improving the existing railways will enhance the safety and mobility of both goods and people, which will generate new economic opportunity for millions of Floridians."

To sweeten the pot, Bush said Florida will kick in somewhere between $318-million and $491-million to improve the infrastructure and expand capacity on the Orlando area's train tracks. This is not the gee-whiz high-speed rail systems touted years ago aimed at linking Tampa and Orlando and points south in a Disneyesque monorail-style system. This is basic stuff: carrying hundreds of commuters along 16 stops through Osceola, Orange, Seminole and Volusia counties at 45 miles per hour.

Wake up, Tampa Bay. A beltway may be inevitable, but alone it is a short-sighted fix. Even in a decentralized, hard-to-plan-for tri-city area as Tampa Bay, a mass transit system that appeals to a metro area's mainstream work force must be part of the future.

Just wait until Orlando cuts the ribbon on its rail service three short years from now.

Just imagine expansion-minded corporations eyeballing car-crowded Central Florida - with congestion ranked ninth-worst in the nation - and envisioning their work force having the option to travel by rail.

Just watch Orlando reap the economic benefits of a legitimate rail system and an alternative transportation system to the car. It's going to be an easy sell as Florida roads only get thicker.

Orlando's commuter rail system may see an estimated 9,000 riders a day at an expected cost ranging from $2.50 to $5.50 per ride depending on the length of the trip. By 2009, a gallon of gas may cost more.

It's not that Tampa isn't getting the message.

In downtown Tampa, companies are rethinking their geographic future because their workers must fight too much traffic to get to and from work. And when they arrive downtown, they struggle to find parking.

Last month, Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio raised the idea of sharply reducing the dependence on vehicles by establishing a better downtown bus system that could move people from home to work and to entertainment. As she told Times reporter Janet Zink: "Our long-term goal for downtown is for people to not be car-dependent."

Iorio's not alone. Richard Balkcom, a Pasco County economic planning leader and a member of the Tampa Bay Partnership's transportation task force, warns that 35-million more people in the country will add to transportation needs in the next 20 years.

"We can't continue to pave our way out of congestion," Balkcom noted in this newspaper last week.

Whether it's to stay competitive in regional economic development or help maintain a quality of life here, let's look well beyond a beltway and more asphalt.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com or 727 893-8405.

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