Yesterday, Hillsborough County Commissioners advanced their efforts to build a light rail transit system for Florida’s Tampa Bay area, agreeing to consider whether to place a one cent sales tax on the ballot. If Commissioners vote as expected on December 2nd, county voters will choose in November 2010 whether to increase taxes on themselves. The revenue source, if approved, would pay for a new light rail line, though it would also support road and bus improvements.
Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio is the area’s primary light rail proponent — she claims to be unwilling to accept anything other than that transport mode — though the system as currently envisioned would connect several places outside of the city to downtown. First on the list, ready by 2018, would be a line from the University of South Florida to downtown, either to Union Station or to the future high-speed rail stop; that link would be followed shortly thereafter by a connection to West Shore. By 2035, with a funding base, links east to Brandon, north to New Tampa, south to South Tampa, and west to Town ‘N Country could be in place. All in all, the system could eventually offer 40 miles of track.
What makes Tampa Bay’s light rail project unusual is that it has been developed after an intense effort to advance regional cooperation. The local Metropolitan Planning Organization incorporated the rail project into its long-term plans and has completely reversed course in favor of transit funding; current spending is tilted 83% to highways, while the long-term plan, with almost $12 billion in expenditures earmarked by 2035, provides for a 50-50 split between transit and roads. Hillsborough County, meanwhile, assembled a transportation task force in 2006 to develop a revenue source for the system and to prioritize certain routes.
Working in parallel, the state legislature formed the Tampa Bay Regional Transportation Authority (TBARTA) in 2007 to coordinate transportation expenditures in seven counties — a process that has resulted in general regional consensus that light rail is an appropriate investment. TBARTA’s vision for a future regional rail system is even broader than that suggested by the MPO, with lines spewing out to Saratoga Sarasota, St. Petersburg, Largo, Clearwater, and Wesley Chapel. It’s unclear how a system of that size will ever be funded; after all, though a new sales tax will provide some revenue, it won’t be enough to pay for all this construction and the huge operations bill that the county will receive once light rail is on the ground.
HART, the local transit authority, has been the primary actor in conducting the alternatives analysis for the first stage of the system, a necessary step if Tampa is to receive federal New Starts grant money for the line. That process will be complete in the spring of next year, in time for voters to consider what exactly they’ll be paying for with their new taxes. HART currently operates the county’s bus system, which serves a small 37,000 riders a day, as well as the TECO streetcar line, an 800-daily-passenger restored tourist trolley that runs 2.3 miles through Tampa’s downtown and Ybor City districts.
With so much cooperation and practical political unanimity in favor of the light rail project, you’d expect voters to approve the sales tax increase, just as have similar populations in Seattle, Los Angeles, and Charlotte in recent electoral cycles. A vision of a broad-reaching plan, with lines extending everywhere, may be the best way to push the project, since it will convince more of the population that the rail system will be relevant to their lives when it’s built. However, presenting the image above, for instance, could be disingenuous; experience in Miami and Denver suggests that sales tax revenues don’t go as far as proponents initially claim. This seems especially true for this project, since Tampa will be spending much of the money on roads and bus improvements as well as the light rail project. Alternatively, presenting a map of just the first stage — from South Florida University to West Shore, via downtown — would be a disaster, since that corridor would be of interest to only about 20% of the area’s population. Voters are rarely interested in paying for a project that will help someone else.
Tampa faces serious obstacles to implementation even if the tax is passed. The transportation task force suggests that the state of Florida would chip in 25% of costs, and that the federal government would add another 50% through the New Starts process, with just 25% coming from local sales tax revenues. But how serious is the Sunshine State about its local transit systems? It has been inept in allocating funds to Orlando’s SunRail, despite that project’s receipt of a New Starts commitment earlier this year. Can it really be trusted for that 25% share?
Meanwhile, Washington may not find this proposal particularly compelling. HART’s small number of existing riders indicates that even a nice rail system would attract few users, meaning that, compared to many other projects around the country, the cost-effectiveness of a Tampa line would be weak. Tampa’s low densities are primarily to blame, but the city has done little to increase infill construction along the proposed transit corridors. From where will the riders come?
But the degree to which regional cooperation has advanced in the Tampa Bay area is remarkable and suggests that a light rail line is more than a fantasy. Local politicians truly want to get this project built, even if they still have a long way yet to go.
Image above: Planned Tampa Bay Light Rail Network, from Hillsborough County Transportation Task Force