October 18, 2010

HART board members raise questions about cost of light rail

By Janet Zink, Times Staff Writer

It approves spending for light rail, but wants to finish a study first.

TAMPA - The board of Hillsborough's transit agency voted unanimously Monday to support spending money on light rail, but not before facing questions about whether there might be a lower-cost alternative.

Kevin Beckner, a Hillsborough County commissioner and member of the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit board, said he wants assurances that the economic development potential of light rail would make up for the fact that it costs so much more than bus rapid transit.

So far, the board has received no specific information on the economic impact of development around rail lines and stations in Hillsborough County, although information on impacts in other cities is available.

"What I'm trying to do is project what our break-even point might be and what our justification is for spending twice as much," Beckner said. "I want to make sure we're making the most prudent use of tax dollars."

Hillsborough voters will decide Nov. 2 whether to approve a new 1-cent sales tax to pay for transportation improvements that would include light rail, as well as road projects and expanded bus service.

To get federal funding for light rail, HART needs to complete a study showing it is the best option for meeting the county's transportation needs.

Board members were briefed Monday on preliminary results of a 15-month study that concluded light rail is the best choice when compared with other options, particularly bus rapid transit.

Bus rapid transit allows buses to move quickly through city streets by using exclusive lanes, limiting stops and manipulating traffic lights. Rail lines are on fixed tracks.

Early estimates put the capital cost of bus rapid transit between north Hillsborough County and Tampa International Airport at about $1 billion.

The cost to build rail between those points is about $2.5 billion, and that doesn't include an estimated $680 million to buy CSX tracks if that is the preferred method of building the rail line. The other option is using Interstate 275 for the tracks.

HART board member Steven Polzin pointed out that the added cost of rail generates only a few thousand more riders a day.

"That gets to be a very hard sell to communicate that to somebody as a rational, logical decision," Polzin said. "We need to build a much stronger case for that decision."

Karen Jaroch, founder of a group created to fight the penny sales tax, told the HART board it seemed the study was rigged to favor light rail.

She called the bus rapid transit system examined in the study the "Taj Mahal of bus rapid transit" instead of a lower cost system the agency currently is developing for Nebraska Avenue.

"It was sandbagged to make light rail look better," Jaroch said.

After the meeting, Beckner said voters shouldn't interpret his questions as a reason to vote against the sales tax.

"Whatever mode of transportation that we decide to go with, I think it's going to be an enhancement for the community," Beckner said. "It's going to be worth the investment and, certainly, I think it's going to bring jobs and opportunities."

Janet Zink can be reached at jzink@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3401.


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