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Model train enthusiasts not sold on light rail for Tampa

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Published:   |   Updated: June 3, 2013 at 02:02 PM
TAMPA -

Hobbyists and vendors at the Tampa Model Train Show & Sale bought and sold trinkets and artifacts and just about anything else related to the railroad.

Missing from the event was a real train; a passenger train that runs every day in and out of Tampa, stopping at malls, sports arenas and even the fairgrounds where the model train show was taking place.

Though their interest in all things rail bonded these folks together, their opinions differed widely as to whether Tampa needs a light-rail system of transportation.

“It should have been done a long time ago,” said Jim Mercier, a vendor of model trains and accessories. The Nashua, N.H. native said he grew up with trains, the Boston & Maine ran by his house 10 times a day.

Then, trains were the transportation of choice, but since have been replaced by the automobile.

Gordon Hartranft traveled from his home in Ohio to attend the annual show in Tampa and was attuned to the rail travails in Florida and Tampa. He said commuter rail here is not a good idea.

“It’s the biggest money losing proposition going,” he said. Cities where commuter rail have emerged in recent years are struggling over the initial and operating costs.

“I try to take the pragmatic view,” he said. “It’s just so expensive.”

The notion of a commuter train that could bring commuters into and out of Tampa from outlying suburbs was dashed in 2010 by Hillsborough County voters.

But the idea did not die and is on track to emerge again over the next year-and-a-half and another voter referendum may again pose the question: Is Hillsborough County ready to join the big leagues of public transportation?

Though most of the talk at the train show Sunday centered about the availability of Lionel, American Flyer and H&O model train sets and accessories, some wondered about passenger trains some day making inroads into Tampa.

“The people who are pushing it don’t know what they are talking about,” said John Setlow, whose expansive model train set was a centerpiece of the show. The third-generation Tampa native said conventional commuter rail would mingle trains with automobiles and that would result in a public-safety issue.

Most cities studying commuter rail, he said, are considering elevated systems, and that adds costs to construction and maintenance.

Still, he said, a commuter rail system would boost the economy. It would provide jobs and businesses would grow around train stations. Bus routes would have to be reconfigured to shuttle commuters from the train stations to their destinations.

“A lot of thought needs to go into it,” he said, “and nobody’s thinking about it.”

One thing was for sure. Everyone at the show on Sunday was a lover of trains. They loved big freight trains with powerful chugging locomotives and fast, people-moving trains that shoot out of stations like an arrow.

The show included hundreds of vendors and about a dozen model train sets set up throughout the Special Events Center. Almost all of the 60,000-square-foot building was taken up by something related to trains.

Though voters in Hillsborough County three years ago rejected the transit-tax that could have been used to build a light rail system in Tampa, proponents say the progressive transportation idea is far from dead.

Last month, county and municipal and transportation officials got together to begin discussing a plan to reintroduce the idea to the public, though it likely won’t be on any 2014 ballot.

In 2010, the proposed transit-tax referendum ran into two big obstacles.

The first was a conservative groundswell that opposed anything connected with higher taxes or expanded government. The second was voters’ sense that the transit tax would benefit the city of Tampa but bring nothing to unincorporated areas.

Voters in Tampa wanted the tax, but ballot casters outside the city limits rejected it and they carried the vote.

City officials have begun what will be many public meetings over the next year-and-a-half to discuss the county’s transportation needs, including regurgitating the light-rail proposal, something Tampa city officials have endorsed.

“If it creates jobs,” said Kurt Brinson, a collector and seller of railroad artifacts and antiques, “I’m all for it.”

He admitted it’s expensive to build any kind of rail system but the cost is offset by the reduction in traffic accidents on the highways, now crowded with tourists and residents trying to get somewhere fast.

“More and more people are moving to Florida,” he said. “I think it would be worth it.”


kmorelli@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7760

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