Hillsborough Area Regional Transit to include Tampa airport in study of light rail

By Janet Zink, Times Staff Writer
TAMPA Plans to build a light rail station at Tampa International Airport were put on the fast track Monday. The board of Hillsborough Area Regional Transit voted unanimously to include the airport in its study of a local rail line that would be built with the help of a proposed 1-cent sales tax. A referendum on the tax will appear on the Nov. 2 ballot. A high-speed rail line connecting Tampa and Orlando won't include a stop at the Tampa airport, said local, state and national officials at a briefing Monday in Tampa. President Barack Obama awarded Florida $1.25 billion in federal stimulus money to start the high-speed rail project. Early estimates put the cost of the total project at more than $2.5 billion. Kevin Thibault, interim executive director of the Florida Rail Enterprise, said state officials in August will apply for a share of $2 billion in federal money available for high-speed rail nationwide to make up the difference. Tampa City Council member Mary Mulhern hoped the state would also seek funding for a high-speed stop at the airport. The first phase of the bullet train plan will include stops in downtown Tampa, Lakeland, Disney World, the Orlando convention center, and Orlando International Airport. A future phase would take the train, the country's first truly high-speed line capable of traveling 150 mph, to Miami International Airport. Mulhern has argued that cutting out Tampa's airport means Orlando's airport will siphon away passengers and deprive the city of its share of the federal money. At her urging, the council voted unanimously last week to press political and transportation leaders to request federal funding for an airport stop. But Thibault said that won't happen. "It's just not an option," he said. Right now, the only segment approved for federal funding is the line from downtown Tampa to Orlando, he said. Studies don't exist to support a Tampa airport stop, he said. And airport officials say there isn't space for both high-speed and light rail. Mulhern rejects those arguments. "We are conceding those dollars," Mulhern said Monday. "If our leaders who were at that meeting today, if our mayor and congress people and our senators asked for it, believe me, we would get a stop." U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, who at Monday's briefing sought assurances that the project would benefit local and minority businesses, said she had no intention of pushing for high-speed rail to the airport. "I've always believed it makes the most sense in the urban area," she said. Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio agreed. "What a mistake it would be to take it to Tampa International Airport," she said. "What a waste of a very expensive system." She envisions a downtown high-speed station that offers connections to light rail and buses that can take passengers to the airport, as well as other locations in the city, such as the University of South Florida, cruise ships at the Port of Tampa, the Tampa Convention Center and the West Shore Business District. But that vision requires Hillsborough voters to approve the sales tax. Plans call for 25 percent of the proposed sales tax increase to go to road improvements. The rest would pay for expanded bus services and light rail. The transit agency's board voted in June 2009 to spend $1.9 million on a study of a rail line connecting the West Shore Business District with downtown and a spot north of USF. The board agreed Monday to expand the study to include a stop farther north, at Interstate 75 or Cross Creek Boulevard, and a station at Tampa's airport. Interim airport director John Wheat told the HART board that airport officials prefer light rail. "We've worked diligently over the last several years to accommodate light rail," he said, pointing out that land has been set aside for tracks and a station that the airport would help pay for. Original plans didn't call for light rail to reach the airport until 2027. But with the bullet train set to start running in 2015, transportation leaders decided to move more quickly. HART officials hope to have the study of the light rail routes, including detailed analyses of ridership numbers and construction costs, by August. Public hearings on the routes are scheduled for September. The HART board is scheduled to vote in late September on a final plan for voters to consider when weighing the new sales tax.
Janet Zink can be reached at jzink@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3401.
Copyright 2010 St. Petersburg Times

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