Extending high-speed rail to Tampa airport raises questions
July 6, 2010
C.C. "Doc" Dockery, the George Washington of Florida's high-speed rail movement, lists 35 defining triumphs and setbacks between 1976 and 2010 that led to today's plan for fast trains between Tampa and Orlando.
So it's no surprise that when the Obama administration in January approved Florida for a $1.25 billion down payment on the first true U.S. high-speed rail route in 2015, the story of how Florida's plans evolved was complex.
As officials and residents grasp the potential for intercity high-speed rail to shape economic development along with moving people â?? along with the separate proposal for a light-rail system in Tampa â?? new issues arise.
A high-speed rail station is planned for downtown Tampa that proponents envision would create a new and busy transportation hub for the city when combined with bus and light rail routes.
But what about Tampa International Airport, especially in light of high-speed rail stations planned for Orlando and Miami airports?
Here are some issues, based on interviews with government, business officials and the general public, that will draw attention in the coming weeks.
Why does Orlando's airport get a high-speed rail station and not Tampa's?
The original concept was to connect downtown core to downtown core, with as few stops as possible.
But going to Orlando International Airport rather than downtown was more direct and cheaper, state officials said. In Tampa, extending high-speed track to the airport would cost more, so planners envisioned that link to be connected through light rail, if it is built.
Who supports high-speed rail at Tampa International Airport?
Tampa City Council member Mary Mulhern has been the leading advocate, backed by an informal group of business activists concerned with Tampa International's future in competition with Orlando's airport.
Hillsborough County Commissioner Jim Norman â?? not an advocate of new rail measures -- said in a recent interview that without a Tampa airport high-speed station, Orlando will become the hub for Florida, with more flights there and fewer in Tampa.
"To me it's so much common sense," Norman said. Instead, he added, "we're going to dump people off at the old jail site," referring to the location of the proposed Tampa high-speed station.
Does anyone oppose an airport high-speed station?
Not to date, beyond concerns that extending the route in the initial phase could delay the scheduled 2015 start of Tampa-Orlando high-speed trains. Funds likely are available, but it would require competing against other states' requests.
Potential issues involve having sufficient enough land at the south end of the airport for corridors for both light rail and high-speed rail because state and federal officials have said the different types of trains could not run on the same track. That point is bound to become a major discussion point.
Why does Orlando get three high-speed rail stations while Tampa gets one?
This rankles advocates for an airport stop in Tampa. Orlando, however, has the nation's second-largest convention center, which is planned for one of the stops, while the Tampa Convention Center has even less space than several Orlando area hotels.
Another Orlando high-speed station is planned for Walt Disney World, whose four theme parks draw more than 47.5 million people annually, compared with Tampa's Busch Gardens, which draws about 4.1 million.
Thanks largely to another half-dozen major Orlando theme and water parks, Orlando International Airport has double Tampa International's annual passengers with 35 million passengers each year.
Some high-speed trains, however, would serve only the three Orlando stations â?? not continuing to or from Lakeland and Tampa. That local service would add ridership and bolster revenue to the entire Orlando-Lakeland-Tampa route.
Likewise, not all trains between downtown Tampa and Orlando International Airport would stop at the two intermediate Orlando stops, which would enhance travel time from Tampa to Central Florida and eventually South Florida.
Who would ride high-speed trains in and out of Tampa International Airport?
No studies on this have been conducted, and this is bound to be the key factor for federal officials evaluating competitive bids for grant money.
Florida travelers most likely to use high-speed rail to the airport would probably come from the Lakeland station, since Orlando residents have the choice of plentiful flights from their hometown.
Travelers visiting the Tampa Bay area could use high-speed rail from Tampa to add an Orlando leg to their trips and then return to the airport to fly home. If they took a side trip to Orlando but were returning to the Bay area, a downtown station might suffice.
The question remains whether passengers would fly into Tampa and immediately board a train for Orlando, rather than fly to Orlando and later head to Tampa if they wanted to visit both areas.
What benefits do proponents of Tampa's high-speed airport station see?
A high-speed rail stop would make Tampa International competitive with Orlando International, said Jason Busto, a Tampa businessman who has long proposed aggressive practices to bolster international flights at the local airport.
"Tampa International would be an alternative to Orlando International for passengers going to Orlando and for Tampa Bay residents who currently fly out of Orlando," Busto said. "It would also bring more Orlando tourists, who would fly into Tampa International to take advantage of our beaches and cultural amenities.
"It would be the west coast hub of the airport rail high-speed rail that we are basically building."
What are perceived disadvantages to not having an airport high-speed station?
Tampa International could become a small secondary airport like St. Petersburg-Clearwater International or Sanford, Busto said, although his sentiment is not universal. "By giving Tampa Bay residents easy access to Orlando International, we would lose most international traffic and much of the domestic traffic to Orlando International."
What about extending high-speed rail to St. Petersburg, Clearwater and the beaches?
The lack of a direct Pinellas County connection clearly is a shortcoming. The Pinellas population equals Hillsborough's, and Pinellas beaches draw more than 5 million overnight visitors annually. Fifty percent of Pinellas's half-million annual European visitors use Orlando International Airport, and most use rental cars to reach the local beaches.
The big problem is the cost for a direct route across Tampa Bay, although planners envision adding light-rail infrastructure to Howard Frankland bridge improvements that could be implemented later this decade.
"I think a high-speed rail station at Tampa International takes it closer to Pinellas, and I'd like to see that happen," Mulhern said.
"I think what we heard is that money is available and the impetus has to come from us. We do not know if we are getting light rail. We know we are getting high-speed rail. We need to push for Tampa Bay to be globally competitive."
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