Plan Has Tampa, St. Pete Serving As Transit Hub

By ANTHONY McCARTNEY The Tampa Tribune

Published: Mar 24, 2007

TAMPA - If a plan released Friday by state transportation officials becomes reality, Tampa and St. Petersburg could one day be the hub of a rapid transit network stretching from Brooksville to Sarasota and from the Gulf of Mexico to Polk County.

The plan calls for transportation corridors that would link current and future population centers with high-speed buses or commuter rail lines.

The plan is only the first step in what promises to be a long process before any bus routes or railway tracks are built.

There is no money allocated to pay for the transportation routes. Also, officials still have at least a year's worth of study to determine the types of mass transit best suited to shuttle commuters on a particular route, said Don Skelton, the Florida Department of Transportation district secretary who oversees much of the Tampa Bay area.

Mass transit proponents praised the report as a significant starting point.

"It's the first step of the next 50 years," said Joe Smith, co-chairman of a regional transportation board for the Tampa Bay Partnership.

Plans for regional mass transit have been proposed and languished for years in the Tampa Bay area. Supporters say the new study differs from previous efforts in two important regards.

First, it was commissioned by the Florida Department of Transportation, one of the primary agencies that will be responsible for researching, paying for and building the transit corridors.

Second, it has the support of Gov. Charlie Crist.

"I lived in the Tampa Bay area for most of my life, and I believe this plan will improve the quality of life there," Crist says in a written statement.

Population Increase Is Factor

FDOT consultants predicted where people will be living, and commuting, up until the year 2050. By then, the populations of Pasco, Hernando, Polk and Manatee counties are expected to increase significantly.

Skelton said the transit corridors won't replace the need for new road construction. "There is still a great need for more highways," he said.

But mass transit is the only way to prevent Tampa Bay roads from resembling the clogged arteries of large Northeastern cities, said Al Austin, a prominent developer pushing for a mass transit system.

"We're about 10 to 15 years behind where I wish we were," Austin said. "Time is the enemy. The longer it takes, the worse the problem is going to be."

On average, commuters in the region spent 46 hours stuck in traffic in 2003, the report states.

Austin said it probably will be five to 10 years before a comprehensive plan for building the corridors will be in place.

In the meantime, officials in the seven counties included in the plan will have to commit to building transit lines to move people from the corridors to their jobs or homes.

Turanchik Had Plan Years Ago

A similar proposal by former Hillsborough County Commissioner Ed Turanchik in the early 1990s was not adopted.

He said he thinks local elected officials will support the FDOT plan released Friday.

"All the time I was doing it, I never had any mayor interested in it," he said. "Nor was DOT interested in it."

With many political leaders, including Crist, expressing support for the plan, paying for the project becomes the next major hurdle, Turanchik said.

"It's a shame we didn't do it 15 years ago," he said. "We could have done it at half the cost." Wait much longer, he warned, and the cost could double again.

Reporter Anthony McCartney can be reached at (813) 259-7616.

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