Don't Underestimate The Costs Of Rail


Published: Mar 4, 2007

Ed Turanchik has long been a thoughtful and enthusiastic political leader in Hillsborough County. He is a visionary with the patience and discipline to move big ideas and important projects forward. He has had the courage to stay the course in spite of opposition and spears from those who disagree. Turanchik is enamored by public transportation and what it might bring to the Tampa Bay area.

It is hard to disagree with his thoughts as expressed in this paper on Feb. 18. It is even more difficult to take exception to the cost of his grand public transportation plan because he presented no costs, not even an estimate.

The planning should go forward and in due course the costs of a commuter and light rail system will emerge as will the cost of the support system of rapid transit buses, large city buses and circulator buses to feed the other services. Add the cost of rail stations and parking garages and the real costs of the transit plan will be sobering.

In the 1980s a representative from Bombardier, one of the world's largest builders of rail systems told the Transportation Committee of the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce that a light rail system would cost in excess of $50 million a mile to build. The test of a regional transportation system will be projecting the "real" ridership of the total system measured against the "real" total cost.

Therein lies the first test because whoever estimates the cost of the total transit system and the total income from ridership plus taxes to support the system must have the experience and integrity to tell it like it is and not fudge the numbers to please those who are paying for the transit study.

The next test, call it a challenge, will be for the local governments and the Metropolitan Planning Organizations to "allow" for true regional transportation planning coupled with meaningful land planning. Parochial MPOs are the reasons the Tampa Bay area does not have a long-range integrated transportation system and have thwarted several regional highway projects.

Many supporters of a regional transportation system have traveled on rail systems in large North America and European cities. Most of those rail systems got their start before World War II when families did not have a car or had just one car. Land was cheap and the cities grew around the local transportation system.

The Tampa Bay area has expanded in all directions. There are very few destination points of high density. Workers travel in crisscross directions to too many low-density workplaces making it far more difficult and expensive to build a rail system and far more subsidy intensive to keep it running. A light rail system in the Tampa Bay area has to be superimposed on expensive property.

Most of the large cities with a rail system are located in milder, more suitable climates where a one-mile walk to the rail station is invigorating. Not so when the temperature in Florida is above 85 degrees and the humidity above 80. A three-block walk becomes uncomfortable and perhaps drenching when a rainstorm suddenly strikes. Most transit riders will have to change modes of transportation at least one time to reach their destination. Bus and rail stations could be air-conditioned, but that ups the cost.

To make the rail system work, our Tampa Bay cities and counties will have to add buses and even circulators or mini-buses. Too many neighborhoods have precluded good access by large buses and have access only from a major highway, which will require small transit vehicles; otherwise residents will use their cars.

Turanchik proposes the use of the CSXT rail right-of-way. As a ground level system, it will cause traffic delays at all the road and highway crossings. A transit system should be elevated to avoid conflicts with road travelers. What this area does not need is more railroad crossings.

The proposed rail plan must be closely coupled with land planning as rail stations and parking garages invade residential neighborhoods. Rail stations will call for new land use planning to allow for higher density. Parking garages will bring additional traffic and pollution to neighborhoods.

With leadership from Turanchik and the mayor of Tampa, plans for an area rail/bus system are guaranteed to get serious attention. This is a great opportunity for the region to learn about an integrated transportation system, its total cost and the impact it will have on neighborhoods. Then the community can decide how best to proceed.

Donald R. Crane, Jr., a resident of the Tampa Bay area since 1960, was a Member of the Florida Road Board, served on the Transportation Committee in the Florida Legislature, Advisor Board of the Center for Urban Transportation Research at USF and President of Floridians for Better Transportation for 14 years. In 2005, he was selected by the American Road and Transportation Builders of American as one of 100 "Top Pubic Officials of the 20th Century."

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