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Tampa Bay Closer to Getting Light Rail

Recommended Tampa Bay Area Light Rail System» Sales tax would have to be approved by voters next year.

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

6 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • As a Tampa native, I’d say that we’ve gotten this far with this light rail proposal is a miracle in and of itself. That said, I’d like to offer a few points that you didn’t hit:

    – Increasing bus service is absolutely a good thing. HART has disproportionately low ridership in proportion with the huge number of people in Brandon and New Tampa that have almost no service. Hopefully the feds will take service coverage into account when looking at ridership data.

    – Similarly, without promises of road improvements, this proposal has a snowball’s chance in Hades of passing.

    – the USF line is going to be transformative. It already has pretty high bus ridership by Tampa standards, and it’s not difficult at all to imagine commuters switching to rail in droves to avoid the parking lot traffic in the area during rush hour.

    – Each additional line is on or near an over-capacity commuting corridor. Once people see that transit works and isn’t just another crazy boondoggle (of which we’ve had more than our fair share), there will be riots if the system *isn’t* expanded.

    – At the state level, as I’m sure you’re aware, we’ve had a hostile transit environment for some time. Governor Bush almost singlehandedly killed the Tampa-Orlando HSR (‘the bullet train’, in local parlance) with a deliberately-ambiguous referendum in 2004. If not for that referendum, SunRail, like HSR, would be a non-issue. Voters on the Suncoast and in Central Florida are starting to realise that Bush & his successor Charlie Crist’s policies aren’t the answer to our problems, and we’ll likely get a much more hospitable state government next year.

    What we really need is to come up with a name for this thing. (Also, integrated ticketing.)

  • Oh, and I think you mean Sarasota, not Saratoga.

  • HART “has disproportionately low ridership” for a variety of reasons:

    * The region (and state) is hostile to pedestrian transit, bicycle transit, and pretty much anything that isn’t a vehicle. Some exceptions to this generalization could be for instance in the neighboring city of St. Petersburg but… they are vastly different cities. Regardless, it is very difficult to take a bus somewhere in the city (at least when I lived there from 1979-2000) and then get to your final destination. The likelihood you’d be asked to walk on a busy section of street with little to no sidewalks is pretty high

    * The Tampa Bay metro region is so spread out that most of the compelling common routes would seemingly require multiple connections, but maybe the population/commercial centers have shifted slightly since I was there

    * Similarly, the bus routes have frequently not be aligned with where the population is growing or where people want to go

    * HART, like many metro transit agencies, has never been on top of their branding & marketing game plan

    * Finally I don’t believe employers in the Tampa region are compelled to offer incentives for those that utilize mass transit

    Regardless, as Bill said that Tampa is even _seriously_ considering a _proposal_ of this nature is jaw-droppingly awesome. Kudos to those who’ve worked hard to put it together.

  • A perspective from Phoenix, which opened its first 20 miles of light rail a little less than a year ago: Here, light rail was approved in two stages. First, voters in the three cities served by the starter line (Phoenix, Tempe, and Mesa) approved dedicated taxes that allowed them to be part of the project. The biggest of the three, Phoenix, came on board last with a 2000 vote infavor of a .4% sales tax increase to fund a mix of bus improvements and the light rail starter line.

    Four years later in 2004, voters throughout the whole county were presented with an additional .5% sales tax to fund a package of roads, buses, and additional light rail throughout the entire metrpolitan area. That also passed, although it was much more controversial than the 2000 vote. Now, of course dwindling sales tax revenues attributable to the recession and real estate collapse are forcing local authorities to cut or delay certain projects in the plan pitched to the voters.

    If there’s any lesson from the Phoenix experience it might be that if the vote is at a county level, there needs to be some sort of plan for service to various corners of the metropolitan area. A more limited plan for one starter line can work if the vote is constrained to those communities immediately benefiting from the initial route.

  • Ocean Railroader

    I wounder what plans they have for the little streetcar line in downtown will they consder extending it to turn it into a giant loop or give it some small spur lines in the downtown area?

  • Ocean: It’s currently being extended into Downtown, which will tremendously increase ridership. Downtown workers will be able to park in Channelside and eat lunch there or in Ybor City, and Downtown itself will become much more viable as a place to live.

    I’d personally like to see further extensions through Downtown, replacing the current “In-Town Trolley” bus routes, and perhaps also and additional line in Hyde Park and South Tampa, but this is unlikely to happen for decades.

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