Pinellas & Hillsborough transit agencies consider rail over Tampa Bay listen02/15/11 Kate Bradshaw
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If you’re one of the thousands of people who drive across the Howard-Frankland Bridge twice daily, you know how brutal that rush-hour traffic can get. Picture, instead, traversing the Bay via rail – reading the paper, staring out the window, texting to your heart’s content. Today the transit agencies from Pinellas and Hillsborough talked about making room for a possible rail line when the state replaces the bridge’s eastbound expanse. Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority consultant Don Kloehn said that’s been a key element of that county’s transit planning.
The Florida Department of Transportation bridge project may start in the next few years, and Kloehn said the agency is making sure the department is leaving room for public transit.
The Pinellas transit authority is in the early stages of its Alternatives Analysis, a process that studies the best possible transit methods, and where they should go. It’s a necessary step in receiving federal New Start funds. The Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority is in the final stages of its study, and Kloehn said the bridge project is causing Pinellas to jumpstart theirs.
He said among the transit methods the agency is studying are express bus, commuter rail, bus rapid transit, and light rail, which is so far the favored option. The study area forms a Y-shape linking Downtown St. Pete to the Gateway area as well as Clearwater. North-South corridor options in St. Pete include I-275, 4th Street, and 28th Street. Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority Board Chair R.B. Johnson, who is also mayor of Indian Rocks Beach, said there’s another key factor the agency is considering as it conducts the study.
He said one thing that keeps the two counties’ transit agencies from working together is the large body of water situated between the two.
In the past year, a federally-funded high speed rail project linking Tampa to Orlando has kicked talk of connectivity into high gear. Yet with new Governor Rick Scott’s apparent skepticism of the project, it may end up on the chopping block. Still, said Johnson, transit agencies region-wide should keep the idea of connectivity front and center when considering new projects.
Johnson said that while the counties need to take a regional approach, transit agencies should also keep in mind their differences. He said Hillsborough County has four municipalities and several unincorporated areas, while Pinellas County comprises nearly two dozen cities and towns.
One thing the two counties have in common when it comes to transit is the question of funding. One option to fund projects like rail would be to raise ad valorem taxes, an idea not likely to be popular with voters. Another is to up the sales tax, a proposal Hillsborough rejected last November. PSTA Board member Jeff Danner said such a measure would not likely make it to the ballot until at least Spring of 2012. HART CEO David Armijo said a starter rail line, on existing right-of-way between Downtown Tampa and the Airport, may be key in winning support for future transit initiatives.
HART Board member Mark Sharpe, also a Hillsborough County Commissioner, said the test line might accomplish what the transit referendum’s supporters did not.
In the meantime, PSTA officials say they’ve received a matching grant of over 460 thousand dollars for a project that provide a direct PSTA bus route to Tampa International Airport. Project specifics will likely be discussed at a board workshop tomorrow.