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Hillsborough's light rail tax defeat turns talk to regional rail

Staff
Published:   |   Updated: July 12, 2013 at 12:46 AM
TAMPA -

Wilfred Sergeant addresses Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority public commentary sessions regularly, bringing a range and depth of passenger rail experience unmatched by those in attendance.

Transportation planners, consultants and officials from eight local counties listen respectfully to the 90-year-old Largo resident as he makes his point du-jour quietly, quickly, simply.

"Then they seem to disregard what I have said," Sergeant says cheerfully, despite his background of designing and overseeing a commuter rail system in Toronto that's become a worldwide model for the ridership and economic development it's created.

Not any more.

On Friday, TBARTA officials announced it was working with CSX Transportation officials to gain access to 97 miles of freight track to use for regional commuter rail that would extend from north of Brooksville in Hernando County, south through Pasco County into Hillsborough County and west to Oldsmar, Clearwater and St. Petersburg.

"Wilfred's comments did not fall on deaf ears," said Ronnie Duncan, TBARTA's chairman. "We hear him. That's why it's exciting to be able to say that we are working with CSX on a plan that could lead to commuter rail."

In the aftermath of the defeat by Hillsborough County voters of a referendum to help fund a 28-mile light rail route through Tampa, rail advocates have begun discussing regional rail instead.

"People have been brainwashed by visiting cities with successful (light rail) systems, but they serve short distances," Sergeant said.

"We have an area that extends 100 miles north and south and 80 miles east. You cannot cover that with a network of streetcars that average 25 mph. You need a train that passes cars on the highway" at speeds up to 80 mph.

TBARTA had relied on Hillsborough to kick off rail plans, reasoning that if the keystone county in the region could establish a successful light rail line, other counties would follow. Through TBARTA, planners would establish rail and additional bus routes to ensure region-wide connectivity.

But the 58 percent to 42 percent referendum defeat has prompted a different way of thinking.

A Pinellas County transportation task force on Monday decided to continue with its plans for light rail within the county but to also suggest consideration of a regional transportation taxing authority for a larger rail system.

The key for regional rail is the CSX rail line. The Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority previously sought to acquire a part of the CSX line for its light rail system, but CSX said it would only sell the rail line in its entirety, with a price tag HART expected to be $679 million.

CSX, preferring to deal with a single entity rather than multiple counties after its trying experiences in the Orlando area and south Florida, has been talking to TBARTA for at least six months.

Business leaders tie the area's congested highways and the long-term expense required to widen them to the Tampa Bay region's economic development challenges and comparatively low wages.

Elected officials and business leaders agree it's one thing to develop a regional transportation plan and another to fund it in separate segments with local tax revenue that federal agencies require for matching funds.

"People might vote to support what they think are their own interests but they don't want to vote more taxes to support infrastructure improvements, said Gary Sasso, who heads the Carleton Fields law firm in Tampa and is a rail advocate. "We might have to turn more to state and federal sources to get something done."

If a regional focus takes hold, cities could still supplement commuter rail with light rail, like San Diego has and Orlando is considering.

The ability to rebound from planning defeats for rail lines is a mark of many U.S. cities that today have light rail or commuter rail systems.

"You learn to get over it," said Don Keuth, president of the Phoenix Community Alliance. Phoenix had three failed rail tax efforts before successfully convincing and opening its light rail system two years ago. "You learn to tell your story better."

Orlando and Tampa set out nearly 20 years ago to build rail systems as an alternative to highway congestion.

Orlando changed plans from light rail to commuter rail after the Orange County commission in 1999 voted down a $660 million light rail proposal, even though half that funding was promised by the federal government.

In 2006 plans were announced for a 61-mile commuter rail line along tracks the state agreed to purchase from CSX last year.

Tampa Bay area rail advocates in 1993 proposed a regional system on CSX tracks in five counties. That evolved into a concept relying largely on CSX tracks for a route between the University of South Florida, downtown and Tampa International Airport and WestShore.

That plan disappeared in 1995, when county commissioners refused to put a sales tax initiative on the ballot. HART reintroduced a similar 20-mile plan in 2001, but again county commissioners would not allow a vote by taxpayers.

In 2006, Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio unveiled a regional plan using CSX tracks and building new tracks for a system that would have linked Brooksville, Tampa, St. Petersburg, Bradenton and Lakeland.

But instead, commissioners agreed to put on the ballot the light rail plan that served only Hillsborough County, which was defeated earlier this month.

"My intent ... in 2006 was to get the conversation going and for studies to move from the shelf to something tangible," Iorio said.

Dudley Saunderson, a retiree who lives in Hudson, thinks commuter rail is more important than light rail.

"What we need in Florida, especially the Tampa Bay area, is commuter rail for people to get from, say, Homosassa to Tampa to spend a day at work and get on the train to come home."

Saunderson, who relocated here from Ontario, is familiar with the Toronto area's Go Transit rail and bus system, which he calls "one of the most fabulous systems I've ever seen."

He and his wife had lived in Mississauga, a suburb west of Toronto in a $21,000 house he owned in 1970 he says in now worth $800,000.

The Saundersons moved to Barrie, Ont., about 55 miles north of Toronto, and Dudley Saunderson learned to take a Go Transit train to work.

"I got up at 6:30, went to the station at 7:30 and got to work at 8:30 instead of fighting traffic that could be a two and a half hour trip," he said.

For Tampa Bay to create that kind of system, a deal to use CSX tracks must be forged, then some type of local, regional or state funding would be required to get a federal match for commuter train cars and locomotives.

And a decision on what type of rail to pursue must be agreed upon.

Sergeant hopes that when the Florida Department of Transportation forges its plans to reconstruct the Howard Frankland Bridge in another 15 years - some proposals are in the works to do it more quickly - that state planners will agree to build the new structure to handle commuter rail.

He also believes the new bridge should accommodate the proposed high-speed trains from the Tampa station - though not at high speeds - to allow passengers to travel from Miami and Orlando to Pinellas, similar to the way TGV high sped trains in France also operate on regular rail network.

While that idea does not resonate with local rail advocates who believe a light rail connection could serve the Tampa-Pinellas route, Sergeant suggests they listen to the "sound of light rail."

"It's the sound of a streetcar," said Sergeant, who parlayed his degrees in electrical and mechanical engineering at the University of London to a job with the London subways before relocating to Canada.

"But I am really only a newcomer, living here in the past 30 years. I have not yet become fully reconciled to the political processes."

tjackovics@tampatrib.com

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