HART Board approves tentative light rail plan

10/18/10 Kate Bradshaw
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Hillsborough County may be getting light rail. Today officials presented findings from a fifteen month transportation study, and transit board members, though skeptical of the fine details, approved of the recommendations.

More than a year in the making, the pages of the alternatives analysis contain a clue to how life in Hillsborough County may change in the coming decades. Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority head planner Mary Shavalier says it irons out numerous factors involved in mapping out a new public transportation system.

One of the biggest questions was whether the new system should be bus or rail. George Walton, a consultant working with HART, says rail is the way to go for a number of reasons.

He says there is one drawback to going with rail over bus rapid transit, or BRT.

Walton says that rail might cost twice as much as BRT, but it would generate money in other ways.

Board members called such factors intangibles. An economic comparison between the two is still missing. The HART Board voted unanimously to approve the alternatives analysis, but they still have time to opt for BRT. Board member Kevin Beckner says he wants to be sure rail is indeed the best option.

HART has yet to plan exactly where the rail line will go. But it does know that from USF to downtown Tampa, it will probably go along Interstate-275. But there’s a chance it might run in the CSX rail right-of-way. The latter appears less expensive, but when the nearly one hundred miles of track CSX reportedly would require HART to buy is factored in, it adds another 679 million to the $1.5 billion CSX price tag. The I-275 option would cost $1.7 billion. Again, HART consultant George Walton.

The analysis indicates that CSX wants the county to buy 97 miles so it can have six miles of right of way, but CSX spokesperson Gary Sease says negotiations haven’t even reached that point yet.

Walton says CSX would not allow public transit to run on its tracks.

The alternatives analysis did suggest more redevelopment potential along the CSX line. Community activist and Democratic Black Caucus head Diane Hart says to choose the CSX line is to support economic development in East Tampa.

Another critic of the findings is Laura Rambeau-Lee, a conservative blogger who opposes the transit tax as a whole, and gives a litany of reasons during public comment.

The federal money she mentions is not a definite, but the study was conducted as a step in the process of acquiring such funds. Much of the funding for the transit overhaul would come from a penny per dollar sales tax voters may approve November 2. Seventy Five percent of that would fund public transit, and the remaining twenty-five percent would fund road improvements. HART Board member Kevin Beckner, also a Hillsborough County Commissioner, says the overhaul’s unanswered questions should not take away from the bigger picture.

More specifics on routes are expected to be out by the year’s end, some time after election day.

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