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