Transit Proposal Presented

By RICH SHOPES The Tampa Tribune

Published: Jul 14, 2007

TAMPA - A group of planners and politicians from across the Tampa Bay area unveiled on Friday an ambitious proposal to build a network of trains, high-speed buses and water ferries.

The Regional Transit Workgroup's plan, revealed this month in The Tampa Tribune, would crisscross seven counties and someday could form a transportation grid that shapes travel patterns for generations of commuters, tourists and seniors.

Among the plan's highlights:

•A rail line, called "the backbone," between downtown Tampa and St. Petersburg, with stops at Tampa International Airport and St. Petersburg's Toytown (or Gateway) area.

•More trains and buses would branch out from those hubs, linking Clearwater, Plant City and other cities and forming a broader network stretching east to Lakeland and from Hernando to Sarasota counties.

•Ferries would travel from Bradenton to St. Petersburg, Tampa and, possibly, Apollo Beach.

"This will give a lot of people an opportunity to travel in something other than automobiles," Pinellas Planning Director Brian Smith said.

The six-county Regional Transit Workgroup, comprising planners and elected officials from Hernando, Hillsborough, Manatee, Sarasota, Pasco and Pinellas counties, has been drawing up the plans for three months in response to Pinellas County Commission Chairman Ronnie Duncan's request that cities and counties pool their efforts to tackle transportation issues.

The group met for the first time in February and then Friday at Tampa International Airport.

Still unanswered was how to fund the elaborate system, which component to tackle first, and whether voters in the various cities and counties will back a referendum asking for a higher sales tax to fund the network.

Hillsborough Commissioner Ken Hagan suggested it might be easier to put the question on the ballot through a citizen petition drive than by asking county commissioners to put it to voters.

"I think it would be prudent to assume that the county commission will not pass a sales tax referendum question," he said.

Those and other issues are years away from being resolved, Duncan said.

He said it could take that long to build political support and figure out exactly how to carry out the plan. The first leg likely would be a rail line connecting Tampa and St. Petersburg, but even that is not assured.

Still, Duncan was optimistic, saying the first trains could start rolling in 10 to 15 years.

For now, he said, the group needs to keep the momentum rolling. Its next move is to take the proposal to the Tampa Bay Regional Transportation Authority, the agency approved by the governor two weeks ago to develop regional transportation plans.

By law, that authority must hold its first meeting by Aug. 21. Several of the work group's members, including Duncan and Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio, will serve on the regional authority, but most of its members, drawn from the seven Tampa Bay area counties, have yet to be appointed.

The authority has two years to develop a plan. Iorio said it might be wise to push for a sales tax referendum after that point, in 2010.

Don Skelton, secretary of District 7 of the Florida Department of Transportation, which includes Hillsborough, called the work group's proposal a good starting point. He cautioned against being inflexible on which routes end up as rail lines and which turn out to be bus routes.

"What you see here is a sketch, conceptual at best," he told members.

DOT is developing its own transit plan, and Skelton emphasized that only one plan is going to get built. So far, work group members are encouraged that their proposal and DOT's corridors study show similarities.

In developing their plans, both groups gauged current and future travel patterns based on population, land use and employment centers. The work group took the additional step of following CSX rail lines and assuming the rail company will allow passenger trains on its freight lines.

Duncan admits that's a big assumption. The company has said it won't consider other proposals until it finishes talks about a commuter rail system in Central Florida.

Reporter Rich Shopes can be reached at (813) 259-7633 or Keyword: Transit, to see a map of a series of proposed transit routes in the Tampa Bay area.

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