Thursday, December 27, 2012

Light Rail Coming to Tampa Bay

The only light rail the Tampa Bay Area has known, at least in this century, is the TECO Streetcar. The 2.4 mile system serves mostly tourists in Ybor City and Channelside. I didn't get the opportunity to ride on it when I was downtown but it was really fun watching the little yellow streetcars pass by on a timely basis. This is the only streetcar light rail system in the whole state if you don't count Miami's Metromover because tracks are not built into the street. 

To summarize the recent Tampa Bay Times news article, in 2010, Hillsborough County voters rejected a proposed sales tax hike to pay for investment in mass transit, specifically light rail. In an unexpected turn, a new poll shows a comfortable majority supporting the project. The result is even stronger in Pinellas County and in communities near the rail line. People who were surveyed, who are transplants from other metropolitan areas, say that for the size of its metropolitan areas, Florida severely lags 10 years behind. In Hillsborough County, 56% said yes to spending public tax money to bring light rail MASS (keyword mass) transit to the Tampa Bay Area. Pinellas County saw 60% in favor. Respondents noted that absence of mass transit contributed to the disadvantage the region has in attracting jobs. 

Tampa Rail Proposed

Modelled after Phoenix's

Tampa Rail Proposed

Past proposed routes

The cost to operate the trains and maintain the equipment, tracks, and stations would range from $8 million to $20 million per year.  Florida is getting there finally. Looking forward to all of the new developments! In 2010, plans were for a 46 mile network massively connecting Hillsborough County to move people around the University of South Florida throughout the rest of the county with light rail lines and doubling the bus system with a 1¢ sales tax hike. Opponents shot it down due to its scale, that the area was just not ready for such an ambitious project. Now in 2012, a revamped and much smaller scale project with a half cent sales tax increase is winning over the public. According to Tampa Bay Online:
"We found that in 2010 voters decided it was just not the right time to raise taxes and that 1 cent was too much," said Beth Alden, the MPO's assistant director. "We thought, 'Let's scale it back do something more modest.' " 
The 12-mile rail line could cost between $240 million and $475 million, or $20 million to $40 million a mile. The 2010 light rail project turned down by voters was estimated to cost upwards of $800 million, or more than $60 million per mile.
A major cost savings would result from using equipment heavier than traditional light rail but lighter than conventional commuter rail cars. The heavier equipment would meet federal guidelines allowing the rail system to use CSX freight tracks, though a deal with CSX still would have to be worked out."

We'll see how it goes. Opponents still to the light rail want to invest more in rapid bus transit. In my opinion, rapid bus does not bring the stability and permanence that actual rail brings. Rail is a physical change to infrastructure that has a huge up-front cost which is why so many are against it. However, there's a different attitude towards riding rail than riding a bus. I'm more pro-rail than bus because I feel rail is much more efficient over time and I come from cities who have a thorough mass transit system that includes rail. Even Bogotá in Colombia, which catapulted the rapid bus system Transmilenio as a shining star example of a great bus system, is building now a rail system as it just can't keep up with the mass transit demand. Buses are a good complement rather than a solution. The two should go hand-in-hand. When I went to Tampa earlier this year for a friend's wedding, I was appalled at the lack of transit in the area as well. As a tourist, you want to be able to get by without a car. It's almost impossible to do this efficiently with the regular bus routes if you plan on going anywhere other than downtown, aka to Busch Gardens. We were planning to catch a bus to Busch Gardens but ultimately decided to drive our rental car there and suck it up and pay the parking. Driving in downtown and finding parking is also a nightmare. We looked at Amtrak seriously but because they only run once a day and at a weird middle-of-the-day schedule, we did not have enough time to get to the station and get to the hotel to change and make it in time. It was so stupid. And if anything happened en-route, we would miss the wedding entirely. 

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