HART may build demonstration rail line to airport

02/07/11 Kate Bradshaw
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Could a demonstration rail line between downtown Tampa and the airport convince residents to support projects to ease rush hour gridlock? Hillsborough County’s regional transit board wants to continue looking at rail, but the obvious question is how to fund it.

The Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority, also known as HART, has strongly advocated light rail for combating gridlock. Hillsborough County voters opted not to raise their sales tax in order to fund a transit overhaul that would have included rail. HART officials still want to beef up transit, but are taking a smaller-scale approach. HART planner Mary Shevalier said there’s potential for a demonstration line between downtown Tampa and the airport.

According to a Texas Transportation Institute study, congestion on Tampa Bay’s roads eats up more than 54,000 hours a year. John Gobis, a consultant for HART, cited that study in his presentation to that agency’s board of directors. He said this translates to big bucks going down the drain while commuters sit idle on area thoroughfares.

Traffic may largely be a matter of the wallet, but efforts to ease it come with their own costs. Rail advocates say while the system might be costly, the payoff would lie in boosts in property values and quality of life along the rail corridors – not to mention cleaner air and less harrowing commutes. Shevalier said widening roads won’t fix Tampa’s traffic woes.

The airport demonstration line would cost a fraction of the price tag of the overhaul voters rejected in November, but Shevalier said HART has yet to nail down funds for the project.

HART consultant John Gobis told the board that cities like Vancouver and Denver have seen a windfall in the wake of constructing light rail, but unlike Tampa, they’re not at the epicenter of economic calamity.

Gobin stressed importance of private sector dollars for major transit projects, and said businesses investing in rail could see as much as an eight to twelve percent return on their investment. He said otherwise, financial challenges existing at all levels of government make for a pretty uncertain future.

HART Board member Mark Sharpe said the county has put so much time and resources putting Hillsborough’s transit woes under a microscope that it would be senseless for the county to stop in its tracks. By the same token, he said, it’s important not to pass any more costs onto taxpayers.

The bulk of the meeting, held at the Tampa-Hillsborough Expressway Authority building in Downtown Tampa, was a retreat, so the board took no votes on light rail. Board member Kevin Beckner said he would like to see more fleshing out on the dollar side of things.

Board member Sandy Murman said it’s important that they keep an eye on what’s happening at the state level, given Governor Scott’s attitude toward government spending.

Earlier in the meeting the HART discussed proposed transit changes slated for July. HART CEO David Armijo said these include scaling down some routes by replacing full-size buses with smaller, shuttle-like “Flex” buses. The changes would tackle routes with low ridership and reportedly save HART around 724,000 dollars over a two-year period. Armijo said the changes weren’t cuts, but more a way to optimize bus service.

Sandy Murman said the changes are troublesome for a handful of south county residents, who rely on Route 23, which is now on the chopping block.

The changes have yet to be approved, though the board did agree to allow staff to conduct outreach on the proposal. A public meeting on the changes is slated for April, and the HART board will likely vote on them in June.

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