TBARTA Board talks rail, airport leg

06/25/10 Kate Bradshaw
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Today transit officials heard the latest on proposed rail lines in the Tampa Bay area. The question of an airport connection was front and center.

"We haven't gotten used to being among the best in a lot of things. But when it comes to transportation, Hillsborough County is last for commuters. Dead last."

After Tampa Bay Partnership president Stuart Rogel screened his organization’s new ad promoting a transit tax in Hillsborough, County Commission Chair and TBARTA Board member Ken Hagan asked him the question that’s been on many people’s minds: whether there will be a light rail stop at the Tampa International Airport.

"Recently there has been a lot of talk about adding the next connection to or through the airport. Can you educate us or give us an update on that study, if it's being included?"

Rogel said an airport stop is part of the overall plan, but couldn’t speculate on when it would go online.

"The system will connect with the airport, and that's because of the Regional Transportation Plan and the TBARTA Plan. We can point to it and say ultimately, it will. We don't know, as we sit here as a member of the campaign, as to when the timing and phasing of that will be. We will know that as we learn that from HART and HART continues to do it's alternative analysis and do it's work. But we know that in order to have a truly effective system, that ultimately we do need to connect to the airport."

Ray Chiaramonte, executive director of the Hillsborough County Metropolitan Planning Organization, said the airport is already conducive to rail.

"One of the things I was not even aware of until a couple of weeks ago is before Lou Miller left the airport, he actually went ahead with far more engineering than he even had before done. So the airport's just almost like a plug in. I think that would be a good argument with the federal transit authority, that it would make sense to put on that last mile and a half from where we're talking about stopping it now on the Westshore area and just go to the first terminal. There was some concern at one time that you couldn't do it without the second terminal being built, but that's not really the case. That's not a problem."

But, he said, it has to be light rail.

"Commuter rail was studied to go on the airport and that wouldn't even fit. And if commuter rail doesn't even fit, it would be very unlikely that high speed rail could possibly fit. The connection needs to be light rail from the airport to an intermodal station downtown."

Critics of the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority’s light rail plan say connecting to the airport is crucial. The first two lines are currently designed to run from USF’s main campus to Downtown Tampa and from downtown to Westshore and perhaps to the airport. The HART board will vote on whether to bring light rail through the airport on July 17th. HART spokesperson Deb Tamargo said the authority is also thinking about extending the first proposed line northward.

"They have added the New Tampa segment, probably about a month ago or so. We added that segment to the study. So that will be included and that's in the location of the Cross Creek I-75, as to alleviate the traffic jam in that area."

Hillsborough’s Transit Tax referendum is the missing piece that would get the ball rolling on rail in the county. The referendum is set to be voted on in November.

Other Tampa Bay area counties are getting on board with transit. Pinellas has assembled a transit task force, and Pasco is now looking at easing congestion along its major thoroughfares without widening its highways. Today Mike Coleman, Director of Transportation Development for consulting firm RS&H, told the board that Pasco County wants to make a couple of key corridors more transit-friendly.

"Pasco county has taken the step to reviser land use, to much more transit oriented development. Part of our purpose in this is to study transit in different bodes and options in the State Road 54 corridor that has historically been purely traffic lanes. They've decided that they're going to constrain their traffic lanes to six lanes. Their future expectations are that they would need twenty lanes of traffic to serve need. They're not going to build anything more than six, so anything above the six lane need is going to be transit: bus, toll lanes or some combination of those."

But Coleman said the county is in a bit of a holding pattern at the moment, and that a referendum asking voters if they want to fund a transit overhaul is still somewhat far off.

"They're starting to have the discussions but no timeline has been set yet. I think they're waiting to see how Hillsborough County goes as the first one, and they'll know that in November."

Coleman added that the next step is figuring out what combination of road improvements, rail, and bus works best where.

"The first thing to do is figure out what you're going to compare against each other, and how the alternatives mix and match. We've done that. The next step is to compare those from traffic standpoint, toll feasibility standpoint, whether you can build them, and how much it would cost."

The TBARTA Board also heard the latest on the high speed rail project announced during President Obama’s visit last January. Department of Transportation District Seven Secretary Don Skelton said there are currently survey crews out along I-4.

"We are moving for, you've probably seen some of the crews out in the I-4 median, doing the geotechnical work and explorations. We're moving for some procurement and putting some requests for proposals together to do what we call a safety work aspect. That's gonna be the things like clearing the median, putting the barrier walls in, everything but track, cars, and electrification. So we're out there making progress on it."

Officials expect that project, which would initially connect Tampa to Orlando, to be complete in 2015.

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High Speed Connection to TIA

I am so excited for these types of transit to appear here in Tampa Bay. I am so happy to find out that Mike Coleman favors only light rail coming to TIA. High speed rail is not a suitable application for this and I highly criticize Orlando's transportation dpt. for approving 3 stops within a 30 min drive. Disney, the Orange Cnty. Convention Center and Orlando Int' are just to close. The train won't even be able to act at "high speed" with stops this close. Thank goodness we have thoughtful planners here in Tampa Bay.

TIA Light rail

The airport/downtown connection is the only true impetuous for the light rail phase one. The USF, downtown, and Westshore only senario is just folly, in my opinion, and will not get my vote in November. Mass appeal is the key here. I want a reason to use it in the first phase. At the very least, I believe it would be a popular option for business, and convention travelers. Also, Tampa is divided between north, south, east, and west. Why are there no proposals for linking the major district centers along some of these highly congested roadways.