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Wednesday, May 23, 2018
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Tampa officials should press for rail link to Orlando

It seems nothing is ever easy when it comes to mass transit in the Tampa Bay area. Voters have rejected funding referendums, the governor rejected billions in federal dollars for a bullet train, and now there’s a chance a privately funded passenger train might pick Jacksonville over Tampa for its initial expansion.

Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe is sounding the alarm these days about the consequences of Tampa literally missing the train when a planned Miami-Orlando passenger route is completed in 2015 and the private owners look to add another line.

The natural link would be to the west of Orlando, in Tampa, but Sharpe is hearing rumors that representatives of All Aboard Florida, the private entity building the rail line, are considering Jacksonville instead.

All Aboard Florida officials say it’s too early to talk about the next link. But, as the Tribune’s Ted Jackovics reported, the company’s access to right-of-way along the Jacksonville corridor from Orlando might give that city an advantage.

Sharpe has organized a gathering Thursday in Tampa of community leaders and transportation planners to discuss the future of transportation in the area. They should follow Sharpe’s lead and devise a full-court press to convince All Aboard Florida to make Tampa the second leg of its venture. They can start by developing plans to build local transit lines that connect the area’s business districts and Tampa International Airport, and by pushing state transportation officials to rebuild the Howard Frankland Bridge with room for a rail line that could connect with the Orlando-Miami line.

Tampa’s transit shortcomings are apparent to U.S. Rep. John Mica, a Republican from Winter Park who has held leadership positions on congressional transportation committees. He thinks Tampa is a natural link for the second leg of the Miami-Orlando passenger rail line, but wonders whether the area can demonstrate an ability to put the infrastructure in place needed to attract All Aboard Florida.

“You can’t just dump passengers in downtown Tampa,” Mica told Jackovics.

When completed, the 235-mile Orlando-Miami route will operate 16 daily round trips. The company expects to generate revenue from passenger fares and from commercial development that will grow along the route. Stations will be in Miami, Fort Lauderdale, West Palm Beach and at Orlando International Airport.

International tourists in particular are familiar with train travel and will gravitate to the rail line.

As Sharpe sees it, Tampa risks being left behind as mass transit options blossom in the state’s other large population centers. In addition to being an original stop for the All Aboard Florida initiative, Orlando will be at the center of the 61-mile SunRail commuter line, now under construction and financed with local, state and federal money. Its first phase is expected to begin service next year. It will be the state’s second commuter rail service, joining Miami-Dade’s Tri-Rail.

Transit options are good for the economy. They attract major companies, boost tourism and convention activities, and improve the quality of life. But in the Tampa Bay area, developing a true mass transit system has been talked about for decades, with very little to show for it.

This would be another lost opportunity if All Aboard Florida looks north before looking west, to Tampa.

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