June 4, 2010

Pinellas starts to get on board for rail discussion

By Times Wire

For months, Pinellas County has lagged behind while Hillsborough County surged ahead on planning for rail transportation and Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio established herself as the region's most visible leader on rail. So it is good news that Pinellas now is scrambling to catch up. Pinellas has to be a more active partner in planning, designing and funding the regional transit network that will develop over the next few decades.

With 24 cities, Pinellas has suffered from the lack of a prominent leader like Iorio to take the lead on rail. The county is attempting to compensate by forming a rail committee with elected officials who are among Pinellas' most experienced and progressive on transportation, including County Commissioners Ken Welch and Karen Seel, Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard, Indian Rocks Beach Mayor R.B. Johnson, St. Petersburg City Council member Jeff Danner and Largo Vice Mayor Harriet Crozier.

The committee will focus on some potentially divisive issues such as which corridors are best for Pinellas light rail, funding options and the timing for a referendum on rail financing.

Pinellas chambers of commerce are making plans to help educate business owners and residents about the county's transit needs, and local governments are preparing to change their land use plans to allow for transit stations and rail lines.

Most important, a $4 million study launching this month will examine two potential light rail corridors in Pinellas: one from downtown Clearwater to downtown St. Petersburg through the Gateway area near the western end of the Howard Frankland Bridge, and the other over the Howard Frankland to hook up with Hillsborough's proposed light rail line and eventually the high-speed line to be built between Tampa and Orlando.

Complicating Pinellas' decision about the best route for light rail is the unanswered question of where the Tampa Bay Rays will play baseball in the long term.

Tropicana Field in downtown St. Petersburg is outdated, and the Rays will need a new home long before its lease expires in 2027. The county's new forward motion on rail should be coordinated with discussions about the location for a new stadium, because it is essential that a rail station be located at the Rays' home field.

There are plenty of opportunities to coordinate designs and funding for both of these major projects, which could steer related economic growth for decades.

President Barack Obama's promise of $1.25 billion to build a high-speed rail line from Orlando to Tampa brought a fuzzy vision for a 21st century transit network into sharper focus, and Iorio and other Hills- borough leaders are beginning to educate county voters on the specifics of light rail before November's referendum. It is about time Pinellas got on board.


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