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It's the end of the line for light rail

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For the third year in a row, the transit administration has passed on the county's plan, meaning it will no longer be considered for federal funds.

By BILL VARIAN, Times Staff Writer

Published February 9, 2005

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TAMPA - First, Florida voters rescinded their earlier endorsement of a high-speed rail system to link the Tampa Bay area with Orlando.

Now, Hillsborough County transit officials have learned that their own flirtation with localized light rail has come off track.

"For now' is the appropriate qualifier," said Steven Polzin, a board member for Hillsborough Area Regional Transit.

The agency, which runs the county's bus system and trolley, has long hoped to add rail to its list.

The Federal Transit Administration has notified HARTline that the light rail proposal will not make a list of projects recommended to receive money for planning and construction. It's the third consecutive year that HARTline's light rail proposal has gotten a not recommended rating on the "Annual Report on New Starts."

With that third strike, HARTline's proposed light rail system will no longer be considered for future federal spending, FTA regional administrator Hiram Walker has informed the transit agency.

"In essence, we've lost our place in line," said Hillsborough Commissioner Kathy Castor, who sits on the HARTline board.

In the letter, Walker said HARTline has failed to secure a dedicated local money source to match with federal dollars. The agency also has been unable to provide reliable ridership projections or analysis of travel-time benefits for commuters.

Until it provides those assurances, it won't be considered for future money.

"The project is Not Recommended in FY2006 due to the absence of a current capital and operating financial plan to evaluate," Walker wrote. "Previously submitted plans demonstrated a lack of financial commitment to the project and a heavy reliance on the passage of a local sales tax referendum that has been continuously postponed."

HARTline officials say the letter essentially kills light rail in Hillsborough County any time in the near future. And it means the agency will focus more on improving bus service.

"We've got a lot of rebuilding to do at HARTline," said Castor. "We've got to start to foster trust in the HARTline administration."

Local elected officials have discussed building a light-rail system for more than a decade. Over time, a large-scale system was pared to a much smaller 20.1-mile network, with estimated costs to build it at $1.46 billion, a price that includes park-and-ride lots, 26 stations and 34 light-rail cars.

HARTline was seeking federal money to pay for half of those costs, said Jill Cappadoro, director of public relations for the agency.

The proposed system would have included one leg running out of downtown, through Ybor City to north of the University of South Florida. A second spoke would have run roughly west out of downtown along Kennedy Boulevard to West Shore Boulevard. There was another link to Tampa International Airport.

But the proposal drew a sharp dividing line among politicians, with many conservatives vehemently opposing it. Hillsborough commissioners, for instance, have twice considered a series of tax and fee increases to pay for transportation projects.

Both efforts died, and light rail failed to even make the list of projects that could get money had they passed. So the system has languished on a long-term list of transportation "needs" by the Hillsborough Metropolitan Planning Organization and wasn't slated to be built for another two decades.

The agency has recently come under question for alleged financial irregularities. Its pursuit of light-rail was perceived by some conservative Hillsborough commissioners as disregard for public will.

Polzin, vice chairman of HARTline and director of transportation research at the Center for Urban Transportation Research, said the transit agency has arguably spent too much time on an idea that clearly lacks broad political support. He said HARTline should spend more effort on improving bus ridership, which is showing gains.

Polzin said some of his fellow board members feel bad about the news - that failing to pursue rail will one day relegate Tampa to second-class status among major cities.

"There are others who feel like the public is probably not there right now and that we're prudent to move on to solutions that make more sense at this point in time," he said. "I'm personally in the camp that we have spent too much time on something that is perhaps too visionary."

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This is a shame. Tampa will never be the city it can be without some kind of effective mass transit. The bus lines just don't cut it. Also, with all the development downtown people are going to need effective mass transit, like a light rail.

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I think Tampa needs to focus on, at least, getting a commuter rail system started on the area's existing rail lines. While not as sexy as light rail, its a lot cheaper and quicker to get off the ground. You could easily have a system connecting downtown St. Pete, Clearwater, TIA/Raymond James area, downtown Tampa, Ybor, USF, Brandon & Plant City by just working out a deal with CSX and buying or leasing a couple of train cars. If the system is a success, it will turn the city on to other rail systems, like light & heavy rail.

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