CSX: E. Tampa rail not best

Company says route should be along I-275, not its corridor



October 22, 2010

TAMPA Despite being told six months ago that "in general, freight-rail and light-rail transit are incompatible," Hillsborough County officials are keeping open that very possibility.

CSX Transportation officials have recommended building light rail along Interstate 275 rather than along the freight railroad company's right of way through East Tampa. Yet the latter route will remain an option beyond Nov. 2, when voters decide whether to fund light rail -- in part, officials say, to satisfy federal requirements to study alternatives.

Numerous issues remain unresolved after a half-dozen joint sessions and communiqu�s between CSX and Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority officials in recent months, although officials say that's the norm for such projects.

The dialogue continues, with negotiations to use or acquire CSX right of way expected to intensify if voters approve light-rail funding next month. The CSX light-rail route would be more expensive than laying track along I-275 but could have great redevelopment potential for East Tampa neighborhoods.

An April 20 letter by a CSX official that was disseminated to HART board members focused on safety challenges in freight-passenger rail operations.

CSX pointed out that passenger rail systems operate on 20 percent of its network nationwide, but that involves Amtrak and heavy commuter rail trains, not light rail that would require safety barriers and some elevated structures to contend with clearance issues.

A May 27 letter from CSX states that private land adjacent to the CSX corridor would have to be acquired to assure safe clearance between freight and light-rail operations, adding "significant cost to this particular alternative."

"Our recommendation would be for HART to pursue the publicly owned I-275 alignment instead of CSXT's

freight rail corridor," said Steven A. Potter, a CSX planning and facilities official in Jacksonville.

Potter said that like the Tampa-Orlando high-speed rail system that will be built on public right of way, "the development of light-rail transit on the I-275 corridor will be less expensive and will be completely under the control of public governance."

CSX said that although it considered I-275 the most viable corridor, HART might still need to study the CSX corridor for purposes of the federally mandated report on transportation alternatives, for which HART must choose both a transportation mode -- rail or bus -- and specific routes when bidding for federal matching money.

HART's determination of specific routes has been delayed beyond the referendum in part because of three major changes since June 2009 in consideration of public input to extend the western terminus to and through Tampa International Airport and beyond I-75 to Cross Creek to the northeast.

HART consultant PB Americas Inc. has been paid $1.29 million for work on the alternatives analysis project.

HART's staff will recommend specific routes at the Nov. 15 board meeting along with additional data to support the board's choice earlier this week for light rail as the preferred alternative over bus rapid transit.

"From the beginning, I have cautioned against reliance on CSX," Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio said. "If we can reach a suitable agreement with CSX -- fine; if not, we have a suitable alternative.

"We are in no way dependent on CSX, and that is a good position to be in. The community will still benefit if the line runs (on the east side of) the interstate."

Dianne Hart, chief executive of the East Tampa Business and Civic Association and head of the Hillsborough County Democratic Black Caucus, said Thursday that neighborhood residents remain supportive of the 1 cent on the dollar sales tax that would be used to fund light rail despite uncertainty on where it would run.

Hart said she could support a light-rail route along the east side of I-275, a mile and a half to the west of the 30th street/CSX light-rail alignment through East Tampa, if benefits would still accrue to those nearby.

"Residents of the community would need to be included at the table if I-275 were chosen, when decisions about station location and job opportunities would be discussed," Hart said. "Residents also are hopeful of getting job training to operate and maintain buses and trains. That is very important.

"If that did not happen after the community supported the vote, that would not be right."

East Tampa residents are holding a gathering to support the vote for the tax at noon Saturday at the Belmont Heights Little League Field, followed by a 1:30 p.m. walk to the College Hill library to cast early ballots.

The Democratic Black Caucus is passing out 50,000 cards throughout Tampa to provide information on the referendum.

tjackovics@tampatrib.com (813)259-7817

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