Rail seen as magnet for growth
January 31, 2010
The questions no longer are if or when Tampa will get high-speed trains to Lakeland and Orlando. What's important now is how the Bay area can make the rail system pay off.
The Obama administration announced Wednesday that Florida will receive a "down payment" of $1.25 billion toward the $2.56 billion required to build the rail project, expected to be operating by late 2014.
In his visit to Tampa on Thursday, President Barack Obama made it clear that the rail project is a top priority for his jobs program. It is likely that construction will begin in 2011 along the median of Interstate 4, where 160 mph trains will run.
Much of the focus, pro and con, has been on who will trade driving a car for riding the train, but business interests see a broader picture of job creation, land use, tourism and livability.
"When was the last time Tampa was mentioned in a State of the Union address?" Stuart Rogel, president and chief executive of the Tampa Bay Partnership, said of the reference to the Florida rail project. "We think it might not have been since Teddy Roosevelt's administration. This throws a whole new light on Tampa Bay," the head of the regional economic development agency said.
Rogel's group has been at a disadvantage recruiting businesses when other cities could point to Tampa's lack of alternatives to highway transportation.
Tampa scored a zero on its transportation rating in 2001 in its unsuccessful bid for the 2012 Summer Olympics because it lacked rail lines.
To be fully effective, the high-speed rail system will require a feeder and distribution network from light rail and enhanced mass-transit networks. Advocates of local transportation could use central Florida's high-speed rail approval as a selling point for local tax initiatives to provide matching money for light rail and other transit.
"Having a strong Tampa Bay regional transportation network will only bolster Florida's high-speed rail service," said Bob Clifford, who heads the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority, which is trying to coordinate a regional mass-transit effort.
David Armijo, who heads the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority, said HART service will complement the high-speed network.
"More specifically, people traveling to Tampa will be connected to their final destination via local fixed route bus service, shuttle buses and light rail when that service is constructed and operational," Armijo said.
Hillsborough County's light rail plans for commuter and regional mobility and a feeder to high-speed rail are dependent on taxpayer support of a 1-cent sales tax surcharge referendum that likely will be on the November ballot.
Helpful to business
Though questions remain as to the public's support of rail in the Bay area, the high-speed rail project will change how potential investors view Tampa.
Business officials and rail advocates say high-speed rail should improve business recruitment prospects along with expectations that intercity travel will become more convenient.
"High-speed rail turns central Florida and Tampa Bay into a single region," said Ed Turanchik, who created a group to lobby for federal stimulus money for Florida. "It means we can attract more employers and more talent."
In addition, Tampa will more likely be able to keep pace with other regions across the country, such as Raleigh and Charlotte, N.C., which also were awarded funding last week for high-speed and other rail improvements.
"I think high-speed rail is going to save people time and energy, and help us gain business attention," said Cecelia Bonifay, who heads the green and sustainable development practice for Akerman Senterfitt's Orlando office and travels to Tampa on business.
"My office overlooks I-4. If I could go back and forth to Tampa on a train and cut off an hour, it would be fabulous."
Bonifay also pointed to the real estate industry's interest. Business and residential development have sprung up along light rail corridors in cities such as Phoenix and Salt Lake City, bringing in millions of dollars.
Because the United States has no track record with high-speed trains beyond Amtrak's Acela, which operates in the intensely developed Boston-New York-Washington corridor, prospects for real estate development linked to the high-speed corridor remain speculative.
However, the high-speed rail station in downtown Tampa is planned to become a transportation center, potentially with light rail feeding and being fed by high-speed rail, in addition to bus connections that would operate at the hub.
So nearby development, such as a new ballpark for the Tampa Bay Rays, could draw both from the high-speed route from Lakeland and Orlando, and the regional light rail routes envisioned to serve the same station.
Tourism's future also could improve with the central Florida high-speed rail route.
About 20 percent of the overnight visitors to Pinellas County in 2008 were from Europe. Two-thirds of the 1 million-plus European visitors flew into the Orlando and Sanford airports.
Europeans tend take lengthier vacations than their U.S. counterparts and are likely to seek an additional venue beyond the Orlando theme parks. That means Pinellas' beaches and Tampa's Busch Gardens and other visitor draws could benefit from more European visitors, who are familiar with modern train systems.
"I am sure we would look at a variety of marketing opportunities," said DT Minich, executive director of Visit St. Petersburg/Clearwater.
"We can promote high-speed rail to tour operators for package deals with a hotel, with passes in Orlando, rail transportation and a hotel package here. This would be a new and easy way for folks to travel from Orlando to the Tampa Bay area.
"The concern would be what kinds of transportation would then be in place to get from the high-speed rail station to the beaches and other locales in Pinellas County," Minich said.
Another impact could be easier travel from Tampa and Lakeland to Orlando International Airport, which offers a wider schedule of international flights created by demand from Orlando's theme parks.
Tampa International Airport director Louis Miller does not expect to see a significant increase in passengers from the Bay area using Orlando beyond those who already drive there.
"But the high-speed rail will certainly help with the visitors that come to central Florida and want to spend some time in Orlando with their attractions and then also want to come to the Tampa Bay area to visit the beaches and Busch Gardens," he said.
Sufficient ridership revenue should be generated by the Tampa-Orlando leg to cover operational costs, independent studies by two consultants that supported the Florida stimulus fund application found.
If the high-speed route is eventually extended from Orlando to Miami, as planned, acceptance of the system as an alternative to the automobile could be fully realized, Florida transportation planners say. No funding has been identified for that $10 billion project.
But when it comes to travel by residents long accustomed to driving, the impact of high-speed rail may require a major marketing effort.
Melodi Roberts, an Oviedo resident who telecommutes for the University of South Florida, sometimes has to make the drive to Tampa. "I'll keep an open mind, but I'm not as open to losing my independence of when I want to leave," Roberts said. "I don't like to rely on other people's schedules or them showing up on time and all of that. I just want to go when I want to go."
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