Tampa Outlines Plan for Spending After Transit Tax Referendum

» Shorter airport line could be built exclusively with local funds, serving as a down-payment for a future demand of federal funds to pay for a corridor to University of South Florida.

Though Florida is late to join the light rail-bandwagon — none of its cities have yet developed modern networks — Tampa’s leadership is pushing to get the technology on the ground and running as quickly as possible. Promoting a vision for a major transit corridor, local leadership has succeeded in placing a referendum on a tax increase on this November’s ballot. If the proposal passes the voters’ muster, the city could have light rail in five years.

Tampa is hoping to begin construction on a short stretch of light rail to the airport with its own funds. It will ask the federal government to chip in later for a future project bringing the service to the northeast.

Politicians from Tampa and Hillsborough County (which encompasses it and a number of surrounding municipalities) have been beating the drum for an improved public transportation system for more than a year. In November 2009, the Hillsborough County board succeeded in pushing a 1¢ sales tax measure to the ballot this year. In addition, Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio has been one of the nation’s biggest advocates of light rail technology.

If passed, the sales tax increase would be split among a variety of transportation modes. Highway projects will receive 25% of funds, 43% will go to the capital costs of the light rail line, and 32% is expected to go directly to the immediate ramp-up of operations along existing bus routes. The latter amount would be enough to double current transit offerings; that’s big news for bus riders today and in the future. The tax will produce about $180 million a year in direct revenues.

Though HART, the local transit agency, had a number of corridors under consideration for funding when it began a federally required alternatives analysis, it has reduced its consideration to just two: A northeast line running from downtown to the New Tampa, via Ybor City and the University of South Florida and a west line extending from downtown to the airport. Both would link up with the proposed Florida High-Speed Rail terminus station, part of a system that is mostly funded and likely to be up and running in the mid-2010s.

The complete corridor, if ever constructed, could extend 25.6 to 27 miles and cost between $1.775 and $2.225 billion; 20,000 to 26,000 daily riders are expected to use the line. Though bus rapid transit is also being considered in the agency’s analysis — and would come in at a cheaper cost, though with a lower expected ridership — Mayor Iorio’s insistence that the project be built as light rail will not be ignored when the preferred local corridor is chosen.

Exact route alignments will not be determined until after the November election because of the timing of the alternatives analysis study.

Plans formulated last year suggested that the northeast route could be built by 2018 with the aid of federal New Starts major capital projects funds. Wanting to get the project on the ground as quickly as feasible, however, local leaders are now suggesting that the route from downtown to the airport be prioritized, since it could be built entirely with local funds alone by 2015 thanks to a relatively short corridor. Avoiding the difficult New Starts process could speed up results.

This is an innovative approach that has been used by a few other places, including Salt Lake City. Tampa will argue that its local spending on the airport line should count against future investment in the northeast line and thereby suggest that the federal government assume a larger percentage of costs for the latter project. This wouldn’t save Tampa any costs in the long run, but it would allow the city to proceed more quickly in actually getting this system into the ground.

Though I am typically skeptical of airport links because they tend to serve only a small clientele, the argument that a limited investment in one project could eventually leverage much greater spending on a more important investment seems an acceptable rationale for moving forward with it. In addition, unlike some airport authorities, those in Tampa have been vocal advocates of this program.

Nonetheless, Hillsborough County officials should ensure that the federal government will be willing to make the funding deal with them if they are to spend hundreds of millions first on the airport line. The connection between downtown and the University of South Florida will attract more riders and reinforce development in the historic Ybor City neighborhood, which deserves a better link to downtown and could benefit from an interface with the existing TECO line streetcar.

In addition, Tampa officials need to think seriously about how the two routes — to the west and the northeast — will connect once they reach downtown. Will they through-run, only providing direct service to the proposed high-speed rail station, not the downtown core? Or will they both run directly into the core, forcing riders wanting to get from Ybor City to the airport to transfer? These questions should be answered before the region decides to move ahead with the construction of one of the rail network’s lines.

Image above: Rough proposed light rail route for Tampa, from HART

20 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Danny

    Another $80 million per mile light rail line. How do so many people get something like rail construction contracts so wrong?

  • alexjonlin

    I think the good thing about having a rail link to the airport as your first line is that it builds more support for light rail among the general public than a line for regular commuters, and gets more separate people riding it over the course of a year than a commuter line. The line to USF may very well get far more daily riders than the airport line, but it would have the same people riding to to work or on errands every day. However, while an airport line would get less daily ridership, many different people would ride it just once a year or so, and say “hey, I wish there were one of these in my neighborhood.”

  • Nathanael

    Isn’t this going to link correctly to the new HSR station? Why yes it is. Good plan to get it up and running first.

    Regarding costs:

    Cost of rail lines into airports is always huge, unless you did it when the airport was being constructed, due to the massive amount of pre-existing construction which has to be wound through and around. This has also got a major river bridge.

    “Per-mile” costs are misleading for transportation projects, because most of the cost — and most of the trouble — is usually in a few major structures. Even in NY’s Second Avenue Subway, the cost of the cut-and-cover Launch Box was massive and hard-to-predict, while the cost of the bored tunnels has been on budget and on target.

    It’s always worth working out whether the expensive structures can be avoided. Talking about “per-mile” cost just confuses things though.

    • Sure, let’s talk about expensive structures. When Norway built a 40-mile high-speed line to the airport in the 1990s, the project involved a 9-mile tunnel, passing under a few lakes. Water leaked into the tunnel during construction, requiring additional structures to strengthen it, and increasing the tunnel’s cost by 260% over budget. With all these complications, the final cost was about $50 million per mile, in today’s money. That was considered so high that it triggered government investigations.

      • FG

        That was a pretty serious screw up. The lakes started draining dramatically and precipitously – a particularly big deal since they are in a major recreation area/forested area within the eastern areas of Oslo. There have been a lot of tunnel problems in Scandinavia – Sweden had problems with one in the south. Both dealt with a problematic, toxic waterproofing membrane from what I recall – remediation was a big part of the cost.

      • Nathanael

        Again, averaging the 9-mile tunnel price with the price of the other 31 miles gives you meaningless numbers. If the route had contained the 9-mile tunnel and been 11 miles long, what would the cost per mile have been?

        Cost per mile means *nothing*.

        • The tunnel’s per-mile cost was actually the same as that of the rest of the line. Presumably, the urban parts cost more than the rural at-grade part, leading to a higher average. But the point is that a 40-mile HSR line with a 9-mile tunnel should not be costing about as much as at-grade low-speed rail without tunnels. It should be costing much more.

          Per-mile (or, rather, per-km) cost is a normal first-order approximation of how much things cost. Europeans use it for HSR, and Japanese use it for subways. There obviously are more things in play than route length, but by and large, longer routes should require more bridges and tunnels, encounter more drainage obstacles, etc.

          • Nathanael

            OK, thanks for the better information. First order approximations are, well, crap anyway.

            “The tunnel’s per-mile cost was actually the same as that of the rest of the line.”

            Really? Wow. So with the water infiltration from lakes and so on, it cost the SAME as the rest of the line per mile? What the hell did the Norwegians do wrong on the REST of the line that caused it to skyrocket to over ten times the normal cost for surface line?

          • FG

            Where are you getting your costs? I couldn’t go far enough back on Aftenposten, Norway’s main newspaper, to find anything about costs, but it looks as if Romeriksporten still has a lot of problems. The remediation for the Rhoca-Gil (which contains acrylamide, which was banned in Norway after this) cost like 500 M NOK. There was also a lot of pumping required to maintain lake levels which were affected by the leaks which wasn’t cheap. This really was a major environmental disaster in a heavily used year-round recreation area and the lakes also supply part of Oslo’s drinking water supply. I’m intimately familiar with Østmarka, so this is rather close to my heart.

            Something similar happened in Sweden at Hallandsås where the Rhoca-Gil started poisoning local water supply and killing farm animals. Skånska was criminally charged in the case.

          • I followed links from Wikipedia. Here is one from Flytoget.

            I’m not saying the project was a success. Clearly, there were problems. What I’m saying is that the costs that Americans think are low are in fact so high that in Europe they are considered boondoggles.

          • Nathanael

            And my point is that your example doesn’t actually prove your point, because per-mile costs are close to useless on a disparate line containing tunnels, bridges, and flat track.

            Per-mile costs are useful for *consistent terrain*, and a breakdown of “x miles of bored tunnel at $x per mile, x miles of surface track at $x per mile, x miles of surface bridge over bog at $x per mile, x miles of minor bridges at $x per mile” is actually useful.

          • Nathanael

            Note that I’m not saying you’re wrong about your general point, just that you aren’t providing the numbers necessary to demonstrate it here.

            Comparing the tunnelling on the Second Avenue Subway with similar tunnelling jobs in Europe, on the other hand, *does* demonstrate it in that case.

          • Good engineering doesn’t just cut costs per item; it also makes items less expensive. It involves using optimal methods for tunneling (bored versus cut-and-cover), making a major bridge minor, avoiding unnecessary tunneling, and so on. For example, with ARC the main problem is the choice to build a cavern, not the fact that the cavern may be more expensive than elsewhere.

  • Peter

    Why can’t we just hire whoever Barcelona does to do their tunnels and light rail. It seems like even with shipping equipment and flying the workers over we would come out way ahead (note: I’m pretty sure it’s not their workers that makes them better).

    • FG

      Am I missing something that the line will be in tunnel? Or just using the more effective contractors? I would imagine a tunnel here would be a nightmare – sinkholes, high water table, low elevation, rising sea levels and hurricanes flooding tunnels…

  • John W

    In addition, Tampa officials need to think seriously about how the two routes — to the west and the northeast — will connect once they reach downtown. Will they through-run, only providing direct service to the proposed high-speed rail station, not the downtown core? Or will they both run directly into the core, forcing riders wanting to get from Ybor City to the airport to transfer?

    Is there any reason why they can’t do both, similar to the set-up in, for instance, Denver? That is, have three separately branded services: Airport-downtown, Airport-Northeast, Northeast-downtown. These would overlap throughout but would mean you could get a one seat ride (which might mean waiting for the next train) or you could transfer at the HSR station if speed is more of a priority than a one-seat ride.

  • Ocean Railroader

    I hope they get to link the light rail tracks into the streetcar line and use the same voltage that they use for the streetcars so that the streetcars cars can return to the city that was once their’s but had it taken away from them in the 1950’s. Maybe the streetcars could run on this light rail line on the weekends while the modern light rail cars could get run during the weekdays. Or they could start extending the existing streetcar line along one of these right of ways on this map and add more tracks in the streets by closing down a lane of highway to cars. It would most likely be cheaper to start at the existing streetcar line and start working their way to the airport. They could then buy modern low floor streetcars and mix them in with the old streetcars.

  • Nikko P

    Being from Central Florida and having visited Tampa frequently, I would have to say that the NE route is undeniably the better route. My only complaint is that north of USF, there really isn’t anything at all. There’s not even any sprawl. I’m not sure why the transit corridor is drawn out past USF on Bruce Downs Blvd.

    As far as connecting the lines is concerned, why would you have to choose between a through route and a downtown route? If you made a sort of “U” shaped line around the perimeter of downtown you could have a through route that accomplishes both.

  • Brian

    Here is my point of view. When you travel to Chicago or New York, the trains all run to a destination such as Grand Central or the ‘Loop’. The reason for this is simple, you need to have a place to sort out the traffic without running lines all over the place. A good rail system should branch out from a central point when viewed on a map. When you travel on foot as I do when going to major cities you will see that where the rail lines converge, it seems to give extra life to that area, downtown Tampa will be just that if done right. People want to experience a busy rail core because its fun and exciting like going to the mall. Sure its crowded but if we just ran lines from key points, no one would use them becuase then what? you walk or wait for a bus or worse pay a cab. There should be a line down Bayshore or at least to South Tampa, then a line to Westshore passing International Mall and the Westshore mall that extends up to Carrolwood and Westchase area. The Ybor line is there already and then North to USF, Busch Gardens & Adventure Island. The Trolly should loop downtown and cross the center and meet at the high speed train station.

  • Diane

    Has anyone driven the MARTA in Atlanta? This will become a magnet for more garbage to move to Tampa. Floridians are not going to give up their sports cars to drive a bus. In every city where they have developed mass transit, they are losing money. Also many of these jobs will have a requirement that only union workers get the jobs, if they have take any Obama stimulus money. Don’t count on a job from this project!

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