Is Light Rail Finally Building in Tampa Bay?

Over the years, the idea of light rail as mass transit in Tampa Bay has been viewed with varying degrees of cynicism and scorn by most of our elected leaders. To be sure, there have been leaders like former County Commissioner Ed Turanchik who understand the importance of “intermodal” transportation. This is one of my major issues on the blog, as I have written about this topic several times. (Paving Paradise to Put Up a Parking Lot, Another Post on Traffic Issues, “We Can’t Keep Building Lanes” — Florida DOT Rep, A quick update on the light rail issue, and Tampa’s Light Rail… or lack thereof

“Intermodal” means having a transportation system that consist of different forms: cars, buses, rail, etc. Think about getting around in a major city outside of Florida and you get the idea.

Let’s fast forward to 2026. The Tampa Bay area will be more than 4 million people. Hillsborough County alone will be close to 1.5 million people. Areas like Odessa, Durant, Gibsonton that are fairly rural now will look like Westchase, Fishhawk, and Tampa Palms.

To help, our leaders have come up with the brillian conculsion that the answer lies in building a beltway from Port Manatee through eastern Hillsborough to Wesley Chapel and on to New Port Richey. $2 billion or more. 70 to 100 miles.

Finally, in today’s Tampa Tribune there were two stories addressing this that make me think things are starting to change.

The first was a guest column by Ed Turanchik. His arguments are as persuasive as any I have read:

Furthermore, the reconstruction of the interstate is only now catching up with growth that occurred in the last 20 years, and these improvements will be overloaded as soon as they are finished. Worse, the Achilles’ heel of the system – the convergence of interstates otherwise known as Malfunction Junction – won’t be built to its 10-lane design in the next 20 years because it is so expensive that it can’t be funded. Huge increases in the cost of road construction materials have aggravated this serious funding shortfall.

All of this is aggravated by the disproportionate number of commuters who live outside of major employment centers but commute to the city each day. Statistically, Tampa has the third-highest daily influx of people in the country, with its daytime population swelling by 47 percent each workday. Only Atlanta and Washington, D.C., have higher influxes.

Amazing. I wrote earlier that Atlanta, a city that has a sales-tax-funded light rail system, will be expanding I-75 to 23 lanes wide. But we can’t make Malfunction Junction 10 lanes wide because of the cost.

So where does this leave us? With short-sighted leaders unable or unwilling to understand how failure to do something now will cause significant problems in the not-too-distant future.

Ah, there’s the rub. The second story in today’s Trib actually says that our leaders are talking about rail again. It is taking leadership from the state level, from outgoing State Senator Jim Sebesta (R-St. Petersburg) and State Representative Bill Galvano (R-Bradenton).

Behind the scenes, business interests worried about escalating gas prices and suburban sprawl are getting behind light rail.

Among the backers is Al Austin, a developer with deep political ties to Republicans. Austin recently endorsed rail and other mass transit initiatives as a way to ease congestion on Tampa Bay roads and help businesses attract and keep workers.

Also on board is the Tampa Bay Partnership, an economic development group that is supporting rail as part of a package of regional transit options.

Galvano wants to create a regional authority to raise transportation dollars and oversee projects. The plan has the partnership’s blessing.

Sebesta is using a law passed in the early 1990s to create the Tampa Bay Commuter Transit Authority. He’s holding off organizing the authority until after Galvano holds a transportation summit Aug. 28.

Why all this talk about rail?

It’s an easy question for Dewey Mitchell, chairman of the Tampa Bay Partnership. All you have to do is look around, he said, and then think back to two years ago.

“Our circumstances are different now,” he said. “We have more people, and housing affordability is a bigger issue than two or three years ago. Gas prices are higher and people have to drive farther and farther out to find affordable housing.”

That is the most important thing to understand. Failing to include mass transit in any future plans has significant economic impact – which means people will decide NOT to live or work in tha Tampa Bay area.

Orlando will be building light rail… and if things don’t change soon, they will be leaving Tampa Bay still sitting in traffic.

About Jim Johnson

Editor and publisher of The State of Sunshine.
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