Officials reconsider airport rail route
June 21, 2010
In all the conversations about bringing light rail to Tampa, one question lingers in the minds of many: Why isn't a route to Tampa International Airport's terminal planned for the first stage?
That may change. Transit, airport and city leaders are rethinking when a route to the airport should be in place.
Airport interim director John Wheat said last week he thinks the initial light-rail phase should serve the terminal rather than stopping short at a nearby proposed transit center
Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio, who has orchestrated the region's quest for light rail and improved transit, is open to the idea.
"If we can integrate the airport into the first phase of study, we should," she said.
David Armijo, executive director of the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority, for months has championed the idea of extending light rail through the airport sooner rather than later, creating a U-shaped route from Linebaugh Avenue in the northwest through downtown to northeast Tampa.
"Adding the segment into the airport will require more environmental and engineering work and will add more time," he said. "However, it would appear that, subject to the review process, that is the No. 1 request from the stakeholders and the public. â?¦ HART is now working on estimating the cost to add this to the project review."
Local transportation officials want to decide by August what light rail routes and stations to recommend to federal officials to compete with up to 100 cities for transportation funding.
That will also give Hillsborough County voters time to view the plan before Nov. 2, when they will cast ballots on a request to add a 1-cent transportation sales tax surcharge. That tax and federal matching money would pay for light rail and other transit projects.
The airport has had longtime plans for light rail terminals when the lines are expanded to serve the suburbs to the north and Pinellas County to the west.
Airport officials unveiled a light rail plan using a video in November 2007 that showed how trains would follow a 3.5-mile, $190 million-plus light rail corridor through the airport, which handled 17 million passengers last year.
However, options for the first light rail phase terminate at a HART mass transit center that is scheduled to be built by next summer near O'Brien and West Spruce streets, about a mile from the airport. That's because a complex environmental review of rail corridors in 2003 ended outside the airport.
Since then, the Obama administration approved the first high-speed rail line with a route linking Orlando International Airport and Tampa.
Orlando's high-speed rail station will be at its airport because of an east-west airport corridor that was inexpensive compared with the cost of running rail into downtown Orlando, said Nazih Haddad, chief operating officer of Florida Rail Enterprise, the state's passenger rail agency that is overseeing Florida's high-speed rail development.
By comparison, Tampa's high-speed rail station will be downtown, along a direct, interstate-median corridor. It will rely on light rail and bus connections to the airport and other points in the Tampa Bay area.
"Now that high-speed rail between Tampa and Orlando will become a reality, it will be important to create connections between the downtown high-speed rail station and the airport as quickly as possible," said Wheat, the airport director.
He said he doesn't think Orlando airport's high-speed rail station will hurt passenger traffic at Tampa International.
In fact, high-speed rail could bring air travelers from Lakeland and give those flying into Tampa a quick link to visit Orlando's attractions.
"We will look at it providing an opportunity for us," he said.
With high-speed trains expected to begin operation in 2015 and the earliest light rail not likely to be in operation until 2018, initial airport connections must be through enhanced bus service, officials said.
Armijo said HART won't wait until 2015 to improve downtown-airport transit. He plans to begin to alter bus routes and stops in July that could reduce downtown-to-airport bus travel from the current 35 to 38 minutes to about 30 minutes.
One question affecting airport ridership that must be resolved is what path HART will recommend for light rail between downtown and the West Shore airport area.
The choices are a relatively direct route along Interstate 275 to the edge of downtown and routes that go south through the heart of downtown. The latter would add extra time between the airport and the high-speed rail station east of the Hillsborough River and south of Interstate 275.
Another consideration is that no updated studies of ridership predictions between downtown and the airport are available. What's known is that Tampa International draws from a multicounty area, with about one-third, or nearly 6 million annual passengers, heading to or from Hillsborough County.
Many cities that have launched successful light rail systems â?? such as Charlotte, N.C., Salt Lake City and Denver â?? did not serve airports in the first phases of their networks.
Former Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory, a Republican conservative who championed light rail past fiscal skeptics, said he originally thought an airport route would be among the first.
"Experts said the airport comes in third or fourth, based on projections," he said. "Let the experts tell you, not the politicians. Put the infrastructure where you're going to get the best return on investment â?¦ In some cities, it is the airport," based on land density and passengers.
Discussions between airport and HART officials about airport plans are expected to continue.
"I think it's all coming together," Armijo said. "It's all going to get resolved in the next 90 days."
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