TAMPA — The Florida Department of Transportation has closed on a Westshore Business District site that could become a regional transportation hub linking buses, an airport people-mover and potential commuter rail.
FDOT’s $45 million bid submitted in November was accepted by the Blackstone Group, a New York-based investment and advisory firm that held the property now housing a DoubleTree by Hilton hotel and Charley’s Steakhouse. The site is bordered by West Cypress Street, Interstate 275, Trask Street and Manhattan Avenue.
The acquisition comes as policymakers attempt to create a sweeping transportation plan for the region.
“We’ll just wait and see where we go as a county and as a region,” said Debbie Hunt, director of transportation development for FDOT. “At some point, we go out for a public-private venture, but there have been no decisions on what uses will go there.”
FDOT went through with the purchase now because it made sense to plan ahead for the future, Hunt said.
“This is good news. I really applaud the state for them doing this,” said Mark Sharpe, a former county commissioner and longtime transit advocate. “How we connect to intermodal facilities is going to be very important. But the fact that (FDOT) District 7 has demonstrated they want to be a partner and work with us and acquire property like that is a very powerful statement.”
Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn also applauded the move.
“It’s a good acquisition,” he said. “It’s strategically perfectly placed. If we’re ever going to link downtown to the Westshore district to the airport and vice versa from St. Pete, we’ve got to have a multimodal center.”
A pair of major issues will have to be resolved before a Westshore transit hub takes shape:
♦ The Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority and FDOT are preparing to study various “premium transit” options including rail and bus routes that could connect Tampa with St. Petersburg, Clearwater and points north in Pasco County to reduce the number of cars on crowded bay area roadways.
The state agency agreed to fund the study after hundreds of people from historic neighborhoods along the Interstate 275 corridor came out against FDOT’s “Tampa Bay Express,” or TBX, a plan to add express toll lanes to the local interstate system.
The study will start sometime after July 1. It follows an announcement in September by CSX Corp. that the railroad is interested in selling 96 miles of track that could serve as a commuter rail network.
The CSX offer is to be considered in the HART-FDOT study.
♦ Go Hillsborough, an initiative aimed at raising millions of dollars for an improved transportation system, is awaiting action by the Hillsborough County Commission.
For nearly two years, county staff has held meetings with the public to get input on the improvements people want to see in transportation. The initial concept was to fund improvements with a voter-approved increase of up to one cent on the dollar in the county sales tax.
The initiative lost steam, though, when sales-tax opponents complained of back-room dealings in the hiring of a county consultant for Go Hillsborough. The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office is investigating the allegations.
The sales tax proposal has since been cut to a half-cent. The county commission could vote in February for a referendum on the November ballot.
A 2012 study that identified four viable transit sites in the Westshore area included a short-term vision for the Doubletree-Charley’s site involving a station fronting Cypress Street with 12 bus bays. A long-term vision involves using the median of I-275 for a transit platform, with a pedestrian walkway extending over the interstate to a station site along Cypress.
The hotel and restaurant have two-year leases to remain on the property that can be extended, said an FDOT spokeswoman.
County Commissioner Kevin Beckner said the purchase of the property does give the county a future option. “Many other options still need to be considered as it relates to transit,” he said.
Hillsborough County Commission Chair Les Miller called the land purchase “a start to make the county the best it can be. But I’m still leery on where TBX stands. A lot of things still need to be done.”
Tampa International Airport Executive Director Joe Lopano on Tuesday gave the county Metropolitan Planning Organization an update on the airport’s master plan Tuesday. He spoke extensively about the new “people mover” train that will connect passengers with the terminal, parking areas and a new rental car facility, reaching speeds of 40 miles per hour on stretches. That train could eventually connect to the Westshore center.
“This is a giant step in the right direction,” Lopano said. “For this airport to continue to thrive, our residents need more transportation options, and so do our visitors. A multimodal center near the airport that connects us to the region – to USF, downtown Tampa, St. Petersburg, the beaches, points north and throughout the Westshore Business District — has always been a key part of our vision for the future of Tampa International. Many more pieces still need to fall into place to make that vision a reality, but this is a critical component.”