Getting Rail On The Tracks
Published: Feb 18, 2007
Citizens, community leaders and politicians have long bemoaned the inadequacy of good transit systems in the Tampa Bay area. This may be about to change.
Fed by citizen concerns about everything from high gas prices, affordable housing, traffic congestion, and growth management to national issues such as global warming and reliance on foreign fuel, there is a rising ground swell demanding a good, workable transit system.
We face many challenges in getting from where we are to where we want to be. The good news is that if we act prudently and practically, there is a way forward that can result in building a superior regional transit system that can be up and running before 2012 while reducing the property tax burden of our citizens in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties.
In a nutshell, the state of Florida should create and fund a regional transit authority using existing CSXT tracks for commuter rail and a combination of bus rapid transit and light rail to fill in critical missing segments.
Local transit authorities should retool their bus systems to provide connections to the regional system. The current property taxes used to support the local bus systems should be eliminated and replaced by a new dedicated half-cent transit sales tax. Finally, our growth policies should be retooled to create higher density transit-oriented developments around high capacity transit corridors that provide affordable housing and new revenues to help fund a new and vigorous transit system.
The starting point for me in any serious discussion about transit is to accept that most people are unwilling to get out of their car to take a bus that is stuck in the same traffic as cars. While dedicated bus lanes, otherwise known as bus rapid transit (BRT), can trump this issue, it is a limited option due to the lack of lanes that can be removed from general traffic usage.
Fortunately, we do have a little-used freight railroad network owned by CSXT which runs throughout the Tampa Bay area. This is a tremendously valuable asset, which we should use as the building block for a strong regional transit system. Indeed, commuter rail is the best and fastest way forward.
Commuter rail is attractive because it is relatively cheap and quick to build and operate compared to any other high capacity transit option or highway expansion. It is, in fact, why the state of Florida is pursuing a 68-mile commuter rail system in Orlando as an alternative to interstate expansion, which it can neither afford nor achieve in any reasonable length of time.
By accident of history and our development pattern, the current underutilized CSXT corridors provide direct connections between major suburban areas and most of our major downtowns and major destinations. This includes the downtowns of Tampa, Clearwater, Largo, St. Petersburg, Lakeland, Plant City, Brooksville, Bradenton, Sarasota and major destinations such as TIA (through its north end) and Sarasota/Manatee International Airport, the University of South Florida. MacDill Air Force Base and Busch Gardens.
Commuter rail is an attractive choice because, properly developed, it can provide competitive and even superior travel times for long haul trips. This trip time advantage will only grow as roadway congestion worsens over the next two decades.
Consider rail travel times from a 1993 Florida Department of Transportation commuter rail study that used a conservative estimate of 59 mph hours: from Clearwater to St. Petersburg, 21 minutes; from Clearwater to north Tampa International Airport, 38 minutes; from Highway 54 to downtown Tampa, 31 minutes; from Plant City to downtown Tampa, 40 minutes.
I also like commuter rail from economic development and port development perspectives. The upgrading of the CSXT tracks to higher speed passenger trains can improve the ability to move freight, something which is not lost on CSXT. This can have the happy consequence of increasing the competitive position of the port to ship general cargo and for businesses to move freight by rail.
Finally, commuter rail has the potential to appeal to a broad base of voters both due to its relatively low cost and the fact that it goes to so many places. It is a transit option that many people will use, even if not everyday, at least for trips to ball games, special events, shopping excursions or the airport. It is also easy to expand. When demand increases, it is a matter of adding more cars or trains, not of waiting years and spending millions of dollars per mile to widen a road.
To get there from here to there, the best way forward is for the state to take primary responsibility for building and operating a regional commuter rail system. After all, it is the job of the Florida Department of Transportation to provide for the regional mobility of its citizens. Further, FDOT and the state have both the experience and ability to effectively negotiate track access and acquisition deals with CSXT. Indeed, the state is the lead agency responsible for the development of commuter rail both in South Florida and the new 68-mile Orlando commuter rail system. Tampa Bay residents should be asking their elected leaders if commuter rail can be done in South and Central Florida, why not here and why not now?
While use of existing rail lines can get us a long way, they don't meet all the needs of a regional system. Any regional transit system must connect directly and effectively to Tampa International Airport and serve the Westshore and the Gateway areas and provide direct service between the two major downtowns. These connections are within our grasp, perhaps easily so.
Interstate 275 has a transit corridor planned for its median, Tampa has scoped out a rail corridor between downtown and Westshore, and the Howard Frankland Bridge and the St. Pete side of I-275 have good lane capacity. State and local leaders should move decisively to build a multi-modal corridor that can accommodate light rail, commuter rail or bus rapid transit, or a combination of them, at the same time that we are expanding I-275 between Westshore and downtown.
A strong bus rapid transit system can be deployed running between downtown Tampa and St. Petersburg that interlinks with the commuter rail system. It would be a terrible waste of time and money not to construct such a corridor during the rebuilding of this vital segment of the interstate.
With a combined commuter rail and bus rapid transit system in place, local transit agencies should retool and use it as the backbone of their own systems. Some resources could be freed up from providing long haul service on congested roadways, services that could be re-directed to business district circulators and neighborhood services. However, to provide the kind of headways and hours of operation needed to make transit convenient and useful, our local systems would need to more than double in size. New funding sources need to be tapped to accomplish this.
On this front, there is a happy coincidence that taxpayers want lower property bills. Local communities can deliver this on the transit side and provide the funding necessary to build a good transit system by eliminating the existing property tax levied for transit and replacing it with a new half-cent sales tax.
Hillsborough taxpayers could realize a 0.5 mill reduction in their property taxes and Pinellas County taxpayers could see an even greater 0.6 of a mill reduction. The property tax reduction would more than offset the effect of the new sales taxes, so the overall individual homeowner tax burden is reduced.
The net gains are even better for business and rental property owners. At the same time, Hillsborough County would have an additional $75 million annually to fund transit and transit-related amenities and perhaps other transportation items while Pinellas would receive $42 million in new funding to do likewise.
Going to a sales tax base to fund transit also avoids the tax fairness issue that perpetually plagues transit. Under the current system, property taxpayers end up paying for a service that may not even exist in their area. Politicians respond by demanding more equity, which results in silly diversions of transit dollars to provide service in environments ill-suited to transit.
Shifting to a sales tax basis places the revenue generating activity at the point of sale, most of which occurs in urban areas where transit is most needed and can operate most efficiently. It is why most cities in the nation have dedicated sales taxes that support transit.
The final step in putting the pieces together is for local governments to retool their land use plans, development regulations and growth strategies to encourage redevelopment of areas served by enhanced local and regional transit.
Transit-oriented design strategies and minimum densities should be provided in transit corridors coupled with incentives or even requirements for affordable and workplace housing. This will ensure that working families have places they can afford to live in places that are convenient to their workplace.
If the transit system is good enough, they can even forego ownership of a car, which in turn provides a big boost to disposable income and the ability to rent a nicer apartment or afford a home. Such a coordinated transit, land use and affordable housing strategy yields the greatest bang from the public funds spent on transit infrastructure and helps minimize the impacts of future growth by steering new growth to areas where it can be supported.
To complete this picture, local government could also require the establishment of transit community development districts, where a portion of the district funds are dedicated to transit. Local government can also secure new funding for transit by revising their proportional share laws and creating transit tax increment districts around the new transit-oriented developments.
All of these could generate revenue to help pay for the capital and operating cost of the systems. In time, these simple measures could generate tens of millions of dollars without adding any additional tax burden on the general population. In political campaign terms, it is known as "growth paying for itself."
None of this is easy to do. It will take a shared vision, more cooperation between a diverse set of politicians and community leaders than we are accustomed to, and a careful coordination of land use and transportation strategies. Common sense must trump political ideology. Bipartisan and multi-jurisdictional political leadership must be provided from elected leaders starting with city councils and county commissions and end with Gov. Charlie Crist. However, this approach will work and will provide our citizens with real choices that will save them money and help build better and more sustainable communities for future generations.
Ed Turanchik is a former Hillsborough County Commissioner. He crafted Hillsborough County's original rail transit proposals and was the first Chairman of Tampa Bay Water and CEO of the Florida 2012 Olympic bid. He now owns InTown Homes and builds affordable and market rate urban homes.
Commuter rail can provide competitive and even superior travel times for long-haul trips. T his trip time advantage will only grow as roadway congestion worsens over the next two decades. Consider these rail travel times from a 1993 Florida Department of Transportation commuter rail study that used a conservative estimate of 59 mph hours:
From Clearwater to St. Petersburg
From Clearwater to north end
of Tampa International Airport
from Highway 54 to downtown Tampa
From Plant City to downtown Tampa