Yes, our interest in commuter rail is real

By Sue Carlton, Times columnist

Published Friday, May 15, 2009

Here I was thinking we had grown so used to driving our cars, so dulled by forking over a fortune for a fillup, so resigned to creeping down clogged highways and backed-up bridges, that we couldn't be bothered to think ahead to faraway plans for commuter rail.

Well, TBARTA showed me.

TBARTA — that unwieldy acronym for the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority — is pushing hard to educate us on a long-term plan to connect seven counties from Citrus to Sarasota with a rail and bus system.

Over the last few weeks, TBARTA held a series of "iTown Hall meetings," in which they called randomly selected residents to ask them to join in a live telephone chat about the plan. Anyone interested could call in, too, or e-mail questions, or just listen to what others had to say.

Did we bother? Did we care?

Apparently we did. By the thousands, we called in or stayed on the line when the call came to us. I wasn't expecting to hear from TBARTA this week as I finished the dinner dishes, half-listening to a Frasier re-run, but I figured I'd stay on the line a minute. An hour later my ear was still pressed to the phone, Frasier forgotten.

People were interested. Lutz to Largo, St. Pete to Sarasota, they wanted to know: Will the train have WiFi? (Yes.) Will my currently dismal bus service improve? (Greatly.) What percentage could be paid for with federal funds? (Up to 50 percent.) Will park-and-ride facilities have security? (Safe, clean and efficient.) How late will the rail run? (To be determined) Will I be able to take it to college? To the airport? To work? (That's the plan.)

Here's one that public officials should pay particular attention to: If I do vote for my taxes to support this, given history, what assurance do I have that the money will be spent as I intended?

In all, more than 30,000 people participated in those meetings. Many never heard of TBARTA before the phone rang. One caller, a Realtor, pointed out that a top question people who are considering relocating here ask is about the state of our transportation.

All that interest is good news for TBARTA, which has the daunting task of selling a system estimated to cost $25 billion to $30 billion to build and maintain through 2050 at a time that no one has pennies to spare — even when this kind of thinking ahead is critical for our region. They're out there spreading the mass transit gospel to civic associations, Rotary Clubs, anywhere people will listen.

In Hillsborough, the first leg of the journey, commissioners have their staff writing language for a referendum on a one-cent sales tax, which the board will consider later this year. Supporters hope to get it to voters in 2010.

Speaking of our maybe-train, readers responded to a recent column here on what we should call it with inspired suggestions. They came up with names like SCRAM, SCAT and the BayTrain. Morning radio wags suggested an acronym for the Tampa Bay Area Commuter train, to reflect our, um, beaches. But the best has to be Bay Area Transit, with its potential for BAT trains and BAT mobile buses, not to mention cool logo potential.

Interested? Check out for the master plan — something to think about the next time we're stuck on that bridge.

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