Officials hope to follow other cities' experiences with light rail
December 6, 2009
It took a behind-the-scenes meeting in Washington in 2003 to crystallize local thinking on transit planning.
About a dozen Tampa Bay area businesspeople took a list of regional highway proposals to U.S. Rep. John Mica, a Winter Park Republican with clout on transportation issues.
Mica held a model locomotive to punctuate his responses as he told the group not to return until they included mass transit in their plans. That session helped push the Bay area toward a regional quest for light rail among bus and road improvements, joining a stunning transformation of Sun Belt cities with dominant auto cultures.
Dallas, Phoenix, Houston and even Los Angeles have devised commuter and light-rail networks that two or three decades ago were the most unlikely of prospects.
"I characterize these cities as growing up in the post-interstate era, apart from the rich history of public transportation in New York, Philadelphia and Chicago years ago," said Alan C. Wulkan, managing partner of InfraConsult in Scottsdale, Ariz.
Wulkan, who led successful transit efforts in Phoenix, Miami, Salt Lake City and Austin, Texas, is helping the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority by educating board members and the community on future projects should county taxpayers approve new community investment in transit.
"We are seeing a maturity of those Southern and Western cities, with lots of excitement in terms of a great diversity of culture, jobs and a whole range of other issues," Wulkan said.
But "as you run out of room in once expansive areas to build new freeways, and highways become congested, people want choices to get around."
Most U.S. cities except, perhaps, New York and Washington, are auto-oriented.
Mass transit advocates acknowledge that the push for new modes of travel, including light rail, is not entirely about traffic congestion, although studies show public transportation can save people time, decrease fuel consumption and lower accident rates.
The Texas Transportation Institute of Texas A&M University reported the cost of traffic delays in the Tampa-St. Petersburg area â?? wasted fuel and lost productivity â?? rose from $500 million in 1995 to $1.2 billion in 2007.
Advocates also cite community gains in real estate development and higher property values near stations and along corridors, as well as enhanced competition for economic development.
The trend has been to implement light-rail networks in medium-size cities such as Charlotte, N.C., and large cities such as Dallas â?? places that historically have been auto dependent, said Branner Stewart of Cambridge Systematics Inc. The Massachusetts firm is working on a report for HART on the benefits of expanding public transportation.
"A couple of factors contribute to it," Stewart said. "One is giving people an alternative to congestion in driving cars to reach downtown areas, educational facilities and other activity centers. The other is a strong economic development."
Investments in development have popped up along light-rail lines, Cambridge Systematics reported:
In Phoenix, $7.4 billion in private development and $1.5 billion in public development has been generated along the METRO line since 2001. That includes more than 17,000 residential units, 9 million square feet of commercial space and more than 3,200 hotel rooms.
A 57-mile light-rail system is envisioned by 2030, including a 3.2-mile extension north from midtown by 2012 that is expected to spur more development.
In Charlotte, growth along the 9.6-mile light-rail line that opened in late 2007 has resulted in $1.5 billion in development within a half-mile of the Lynx Blue Line. That includes 7,000 residential units and 1.2 million square feet of commercial space.
Between 2006 and 2008, property values more than doubled in South End's Wilmore neighborhood, while the price of a home in metropolitan Charlotte stayed the same.
Plans include an 11-mile light-rail extension between 2013 and 2019, two new light-rail lines, and expansion of streetcar, bus rapid transit and commuter-rail routes.
In Salt Lake City, projects along the 19-mile light-rail line that began operating in 1999 have drawn $2.2 billion in investment.
Three more light-rail lines are under construction and scheduled to be completed by 2012, with a fourth in planning stages.
A favorable climate
The nationwide movement toward adding rail to highway transportation has aligned along seemingly disparate dynamics: conservatives backing tax increases and business interests endorsing transit development.
Those unlikely combinations resulted in the passage of 70 percent of the U.S. referendums for tax increases boosting transit since the 1990s, compared with a 70 percent failure rate until then, said Wulkan, the consultant from Arizona.
"It took Phoenix quite a while â?? as a conservative community with no great love for new taxes and an enjoyment of the auto â?? to vote for transit," Wulkan said.
"In many communities, it took the business community, which is inherently conservative and does not like new taxes, to take the leadership role in beginning to talk about public transit."
Earlier this decade, the Hillsborough County Commission declined to allow a referendum on a tax supporting a light-rail line mostly along CSX right of way.
Now it is likely the commission will hold a referendum on a much broader plan in November.
It is expected to include plans for light rail, improved bus systems and highway, bicycle and pedestrian proposals financed by a 1-cent county sales tax increase that would provide leverage to gain federal funding.
An early survey by Ilium Associates of Bellevue, Wash., for HART showed that two-thirds of Hillsborough County residents would support a 1-cent sales tax increase to improve transit and nontransit projects, including roads.
However, some elected county officials say the vote will be close, with conservatives divided as the business community lends its support to issues that have not fared well in the region.
"At the time we saw Congressman Mica, the business community had already realized transportation was our area's No. 1 priority," said Stuart Rogel, president and chief executive of the Tampa Bay Partnership, which oversees economic development in a seven-county area.
"So it was easy for us. But there is other support as well, from the health community concerned about air quality to those pushing safety issues."
The public's first major indication of the need to expand transit happened in 2001 when the Bay area lost its bid for the 2012 Summer Olympics, said Dewey Mitchell, a Pasco County businessman and partner in a real estate brokerage.
"We had a wonderful airport, good highways, but no way of moving people, so transportation graded as zero," Mitchell said.
Mitchell attended the 2003 meeting with Mica and recalls the congressman's commanding presence as he walked around his office, model locomotive in hand. It's a telling point by a businessman who captained the U.S. Olympics judo team in 1984 after playing linebacker for Bear Bryant at the University of Alabama.
Mica said that by failing to include mass transit in its plans, the Tampa Bay delegation was leaving money on the table â?? 20 cents on the dollar that would go to mass transit in other metro areas.
"We knew you can lay only so much asphalt," said Mitchell, who traveled extensively during his athletic career and saw the benefits of rail travel in Europe and the Far East, along with problems of congestion in the United States.
"I took my daughter to California a few years ago, and we drove (about 120 miles) from Los Angeles to San Diego on the interstate. The traffic was so bad it took more than 21/2 hours. So I wondered, is this the way we want to be in Tampa Bay?"
LIGHT RAIL PROGRAMS
Year begun: 2007
Distance: 9.6 miles
Daily passengers: 16,000
Cost to build: $462.7 million
Year begun: 1996
Distance: 48 miles
Daily passengers: 52,000
Cost to build: $2.3 billion
Year begun: 2008
Distance: 20 miles
Daily passengers: 32,500
Cost to build: $1.4 billion
Salt Lake City
Year begun: 1999
Distance: 19 miles
Daily passengers: 41,600
Cost to build: $515 million
Source: Tribune research
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