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Sharpe shifts from light rail to expansion of bus lines

TAMPA — Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe, long an advocate for building a light rail system, is now suggesting a shift in emphasis to more buses when voters are asked to finance transportation projects.

Sharpe insists his new focus is not a sop to the tea party and other conservative activists who oppose light rail systems. Rather, the commissioner said he wants county leaders to focus on a mass transit option that doesn’t need a lot of study and can be put in place fairly quickly.

“What I don’t want to do is hold up what we need to do while we wait and debate the element that’s going to require the most thought,” Sharpe said.

Commissioners and the mayors of the county’s three cities have united in an effort to improve Hillsborough’s gridlocked transportation system. They meet monthly with the chair of the HART bus system board as a transportation policy group, studying what projects should be built or expanded to spur economic growth.

The group should finish its work by December, selecting economic development areas and a transportation “spine” to serve those areas. In early February, they are scheduled to hand off their duties to a yet-to-be-decided governance group. Work is tentatively expected to start on the first projects October 2014, 13 months from now.

Sharpe said a new HART Transit Development Plan twill give the county the information it needs to begin work on expanding the bus system. The plan proposes adding 175 buses to the current fleet of 187 and operating six more bus MetroRapid routes. The first of these routes started this summer, connecting downtown with the University of South Florida and northeast Tampa They make fewer stops and can change traffic lights to decrease drive time.

“We have the bus element and we could move on that alone,” Sharpe said, but added, “I’m not recommending we move on that alone.”

Start with demonstration

Sharpe said he still favors a “demonstration” rail line, perhaps from Tampa International Airport to the Westshore business district. Once ridership on the demonstration line takes off, he said, the public will support expanding the rail lines as they have in cities like Denver.

The new HART transit plan includes no light rail. The reason, said HART executive director Philip Hale, is that federal dollars for big transit projects have dried up. Hale said transportation officials in Washington, D.C., now closely scrutinize ridership projections for rail systems after earlier projections failed to pan out.

“It’s now very competitive,” Hale said. “More people are asking for money that’s not available unless you can really demonstrate cost effectiveness.”

A bus rapid transit route requires one-tenth the cost of a rail line over the same distance, Hale said.

“It’s not rail,” he said, “but it’s a cost-effective way to increase traffic flow and decrease the ride time.”

Though the HART staff is not advocating light rail in its most recent plan, Hale said it shouldn’t be ruled out in the future if bus ridership continues to grow.

“If that growth continues,” he said, “it will reach a point where it’s more cost-effective to put in a rail line or some other mode than keeping the bus rapid transit line and that puts you in line for federal dollars.”

But to pro-transit advocates like Kevin Thurman, executive director of Connect Tampa Bay, Hale is making the wrong comparison. Thurman said light rail is more cost-effective than a freeway like Interstate 275 through downtown Tampa. The latest reconstruction on the interstate, along a stretch running 4 miles west from the Hillsborough River, costs more than $53 million a mile, according to the Florida Department of Transportation.

“It will be cheaper to build a light rail between downtown and Westshore than the construction going on I-275,” Thurman said, “and it will carry more people and add more capacity than the construction.”

Rail lost in referendum

The debate about light rail often circles back to the defeat of a transit referendum in 2010 referendum. By almost 60 percent, Hillsborough voters declined to raise the sales tax by a penny to finance transportation improvements.

The list of projects included a light rail line from downtown to the University of South Florida that would have consumed 43 percent of the $230 million projected annual revenue from the tax. The rest of the money would have gone to road and bridge improvements, bicycle and hiking trails, and more buses and bus routes.

Opponents of the referendum focused on the light rail component, even adopting the name “No Tax for Tracks” for their campaign.

A post-referendum analysis by The Tampa Tribune showed that most of the precincts that supported the tax were clustered around the mid-Tampa route for the proposed rail tracks. Those voting patterns gave credence to opponents’ claim that voters in the unincorporated county would never support a tax increase for light rail, even if road projects were included.

“What we see is the rail system sucks up all the money,” said Sharon Calvert, who helped lead the No Tax for Tracks campaign. “The cost overruns, the delays. You end up siphoning off money from something else because of the high costs.”

Calvert said she does support expansion of the bus system, which could be completed more quickly than rail and would serve more areas of the sprawling, 1,000-square-mile county. As for a tax to finance the bus expansion, Calvert said she doesn’t have enough details to form an opinion.

Education failed

Not everyone agrees that light rail will spell failure for a referendum.

A bigger problem was the public’s lack of understanding about how the money would be spent, said Ray Chiaramonte, executive director of Hillsborough County’s Metropolitan Planning Organization. Chiaramonte said some residents thought the money was going toward a high-speed rail between Tampa and Orlando.

“We’ve got to do a much better education process so that whatever we do, people understand what they’re voting for or against,” Chiaramonte said.

Post-referendum polls conducted by the MPO showed a majority of those polled said they supported light rail. The top three reasons people in the poll gave for opposing the referendum: The projects cost too much, it wasn’t the right time to raise taxes, or they didn’t trust the government. Few said they voted no because of light rail.

Gregory Horwedel, city manager of Plant City, told The Tampa Tribune editorial board Thursday that he doesn’t see overwhelming opposition to light rail in his town. Plant City residents he talked to break down about 50-50 for and against light rail.

“People I talk to in Plant City recognize the need for Tampa to have the ability to have light rail,” Horwedel said. “They view that as an economic development benefit for Tampa and Hillsborough County and, by extension, Plant City.”

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