More gridlock without light rail
May 12, 2010
Last month, we got a preview of the traffic problems we will endure if we stay on the same path: A motivational program in downtown Tampa April 27 jammed the roads.
As director of the Hillsborough County Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO), I have the advantage of knowing many different routes to get from one place to another. But that did not save me from a trip that took more than an hour.
This is our future if we do not start seriously changing our transportation priorities.
On the plus side, we have a newly adopted 2035 MPO Long Range Transportation Plan that proposes a transportation system that uses a variety of technologies, including the automobile, that will give people choices. We have got to understand how these technologies can work to make our community competitive with other metropolitan areas.
Companies looking for new locations for job creation in major metro areas eventually come to the question of what kind of transportation system a community has and how their employees will get to work.
The top of the food chain is high-speed rail (HSR). The most important thing to remember is that HSR does not function as a short-distance transit system. For all practical purposes, it should be thought of as an airplane on steel wheels. It is not the most efficient form of transit for distances less than 30 miles.
The HSR proposed for Tampa to Orlando would take about 10 miles to accelerate to its full operating speed of 168 miles an hour, and it takes about four miles to stop. It is very large and makes very wide turns. It is the ocean liner of trains.
This is a fantastic way to connect regions, but it makes little sense as the way to connect downtown Tampa and Tampa International Airport or Pinellas County. Bus rapid transit or light rail would be a far more efficient technology for these shorter distances.
HSR would never come close to its designed speed in such short distances. HSR cannot make sharp turns, making it difficult to operate in urban areas.
These attributes make HSR the right choice for connecting Tampa and Orlando but not for serving a transit role within the urban area of the cities themselves.
This is the first true HSR project in the Western Hemisphere, and it will be the first one completed due to its relatively short length and the advanced planning Florida has already done.
With the world's largest tourist attraction, Walt Disney World, soon to be only 38 minutes from downtown Tampa, the opportunities for our future are endless. The Tampa Bay area will be on the world's map in a way that it never has been before if we take advantage of different ways to connect to it.
The perfect technology to connect to HSR is light-rail transit (LRT). LRT, unlike high-speed rail, is good for short routes, typically less than 30 miles, within urban areas. It's much smaller in size, can accelerate and stop quickly, make sharp turns and even operate in mixed traffic with automobiles.
It is the perfect vehicle for urban transit use, which is why it's the technology of choice in most new Sunbelt urban centers such as Charlotte, Phoenix, Houston and Dallas. LRT can run every 15 minutes or more depending on need. And it appears to be the best way to connect the high-speed train to the rest of Tampa Bay's regional centers.
Light rail, teamed with a greatly expanded express bus system and expanded roads, will provide a complete transportation system that can serve local residents' diverse needs.
The community's future economic development, quality of life and national appeal will be determined by the choices we soon will make. The opportunity is here.
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