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Tampa: Light Rail Plan Sputters over Funding

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Light Rail Plan Sputters Amid Doubts Over Funding

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TAMPA - The Tampa Rail Project dodged a bullet this month in a vote some transit leaders say could have proved fatal.

Just how alive the light rail proposal is, however, remains to be seen.

``I have grave concerns,'' said Jan Platt, a Hillsborough County commissioner on the board of the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority.

``We really don't know what's going to happen,'' said Lucie Ayer, head of the Hillsborough Metropolitan Planning Organization.

After years of studies and public hearings, the transit board voted in October 2001 to build a 20-mile light rail system connecting downtown Tampa and Ybor City with the West Shore business district and the University of South Florida.

The HARTline vote didn't open any checkbooks, though, and funding for the $1.4 billion project is elusive.

Half of that money, more than $700 million, is supposed to come from the Federal Transit Administration, which approved the project a year ago. The agency has not specifically recommended funding the project, however, citing a lack of local support.

HARTline suggested that more than one-third of the project's cost could be funded with a local sales tax increase that has not reached a public ballot for consideration.

In an annual report, the national agency warned that the project could lose its shot at federal funding if ``progress is not made on improving its financial status.''

Falling off the government list, behind dozens of other communities seeking a limited pool of start-up dollars, would be fatal, HARTline officials and rail supporters fear.

Jan Smith, who chaired the HARTline board that approved the project in 2001, said local leaders must not let years of work languish.

``We are going to be sadly lacking if we don't have the chutzpah to step up to the table and try to get these funds,'' Smith said. ``If we have forward-thinking, visionary people in places of political influence, we will. If we don't, we won't.''

Worth The Investment?

The HARTline board was nearing the close of its April 5 meeting when member Steve Polzin raised the question: Why was the agency planning to spend $65,000 on consulting work for a light rail system that appears light years away?

``I'm trying to make this board make a very deliberate decision on whether or not they want to continue to invest in it in light of the prospects of local funding being available to do something with it,'' said Polzin, a USF transportation researcher.

HARTline Executive Director Sharon Dent argued that the consulting work, including $15,000 worth now and an additional $50,000 through 2006, was necessary to keep Tampa's rail project in good federal standing.

The consultant would be paid to prepare annual project updates for the federal agency, including one due in August. Failure to meet the deadline would be a fatal flaw, Dent warned.

``If you tell me not to authorize this task order, you've just killed the rail project, and you made that decision today, so you need to understand it,'' she said.

Platt balked at Polzin's suggestion, saying, ``I'm concerned that some little motion like this could put the brakes on rail.''

Ultimately, board members approved the first $15,000 of work, given to Gannett Fleming of Camp Hill, Pa. They also signed off on the second phase with the caveat that they could cancel the rest of the contract at any time.

Beyond that money, though, is the billion-dollar question of what will become of light rail. Platt anticipates a full-bore discussion soon.

``I think the future of rail is going to be decided in the very near future,'' she said.

Long-Range Planning

If it's not decided by HARTline, it could be decided by the Metropolitan Planning Organization.

The organization is updating its long-range transportation plan, a document that includes the rail project at this point. It's time again to revisit the plan, and some rail supporters worry that the planning board will target their effort for elimination.

Such a decision would erase several million dollars worth of work and thwart any hope of opening by the plan's horizon date of 2025, said HARTline spokesman Ed Crawford, an avid rail proponent.

``If you get bumped out of the queue, if this thing somehow falls off the feds' radar screen, and if our report doesn't remain updated ... it's highly likely that those kind of time horizons go way out the window,'' Crawford said.

Tampa deserves rail of the type that works in Salt Lake City, Denver, Houston, Dallas and Portland, Ore., Crawford said, even if some question whether Tampa is in the same league.

``You by no means have compelling community consensus,'' Polzin said. ``They want strong, viable projects. They don't want laggards. This is not a slam dunk by any stretch of the imagination.''

HARTline has predicted about 30,000 people would ride the rail daily.

There is also the matter of HARTline's credibility, though.

Dent recently took a verbal beating from county commissioners, who expressed ``no confidence'' in her leadership. A county auditor found questionable spending practices on the agency's other rail project, the TECO Line Streetcar System. Federal transit investigators have been asking questions about the streetcar woes.

Some of the loudest critics of HARTline leadership have been among the vocal opponents of the streetcar.

Crawford acknowledged that the agency's credibility could play a role - ``I haven't been living under a rock,'' he said - but he also wondered whether recent criticism is part of a concerted effort to derail light rail.

``Is this all part of the plan?'' he said.

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