Airport rail link looses fast track

State won't ask for funds to extend high-speed rail to airport

By TED JACKOVICS | The Tampa Tribune
and NEIL JOHNSON | The Tampa Tribune

July 19, 2010

TAMPA - State officials will not seek funds this summer to extend high-speed rail to Tampa's airport. That means the first phase of high-speed rail would end, as long planned, in downtown Tampa when service begins in 2015.

Nazih Haddad, chief operating officer for Florida Rail Enterprise, said in an interview Monday the state will apply next month for $1 billion state in federal funds to complete the Tampa-Lakeland-Orlando route, but the application would not include a Tampa airport station, as some recently have supported.

"It would take three more years to plan an extension," said Haddad, referring to environmental and other studies that took months to prepare in the state's application for high-speed rail stimulus funds in January.

In January, the Obama administration had awarded $1.25 billion, or about half the money needed to complete the project, with the understanding that additional funds would be available in the future.

Haddad said the state's request to the Federal Railroad Administration for the additional $1 billion requires a 20 percent state match that could come from a fund the Florida legislature established in December.

If Florida gets the full amount, it will have nearly all of the $2.7 billion needed to build the Tampa-Orlando route, where tests have begun along the Interstate 4 median corridor in preparation for laying track.

Earlier Monday, Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio told more than 200 people including four members of Congress at a regional rail briefing it would be a "terrible mistake" to plan a high-speed rail station at Tampa International Airport.

Iorio said light rail to the airport, which has been planned for years, would provide much better connectivity between Tampa International and Tampa's downtown high-speed rail station and other destinations in the county and region.

But in an interview Monday, City Council member Mary Mulhern criticized the rail session for not having a presentation by someone who advocates an airport high-speed rail station.

"It's a huge mistake for us not to have a stop at Tampa International Airport," Mulhern said. "We are conceding our economic development future and our national, regional and global position to Orlando and possible others."

U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, however, said in an interview that Tampa International would remain a world class facility under current plans for light rail connectivity.

"The future of Tampa International does not depend on high speed rail," Castor said.

And in a separate meeting Monday of the of the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority board, interim airport director John Wheat said light rail is the appropriate solution to link the airport and the Tampa's downtown high speed rail station.

At the HART meeting, the board agreed to study adding a light-rail line to Tampa's airport in the first phase of the project.

The analysis would examine a 1.8-mile light-rail extension from a proposed HART bus transfer station at Spruce and O'Brien streets, where the current route study ends.

Adding the airport to the route study would not delay the August timeline for determining routes or September public hearings. Voters must pass a 1 cent sales tax increase in November for light rail to be built.

Last week, the Tampa City Council threw its support behind extending a high-speed line from downtown to the airport.

But Wheat told the HART board that discussion about high-speed links to the airport was premature because there is no estimate of how many people would take the train.

"No one has done an analysis," he said.

The HART board also agreed to a second study that would examine a route extension from Skipper Road to Cross Creek Boulevard with a possible stop at Interstate 75.

Extending the route past Skipper Road would boost ridership by 21 percent if taken to Cross Creek Boulevard and tap the population of Tampa Palms and New Tampa.

The full extension would add 5.8 miles to the northern route and improve chances to find a location for a park-and-ride lot. Locations near the Skipper Road terminus are limited.

A study of the expanded route would dovetail with Hillsborough County and state Department of Transportation studies of I-75 interchange improvements, said Mary Shavalier, HART chief of planning.

Reporter Ted Jackovics can be reached at (813) 259-7817.

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