Unlike most major metropolitan areas, Tampa has yet to develop an alternative method of public transportation that addresses the many problems facing the quickly growing city, such as relieving road congestion and reducing air pollution.
While the newly opened streetcar system offers a glimpse into the kinds of alternatives that could alleviate some of Tampa’s growth associated problems, its ridership is limited only to commuters traveling between Ybor City and Channelside.
Ed Crawford, public liaison for Hillsborough Area Regional Transit, better known as HARTline, said in light of the rapid growth Tampa’s experiencing, a solution to the city’s transportation woes is badly needed.
“At some point we’re going to choke on our own success,” Crawford said. “It will continue to get worse.”
This success includes a population expected to grow 32 percent to 1.3 million people by 2025 and a job growth rate of 60 percent within Tampa’s city limits.
According to Crawford, all of this growth results in a pressing need for public transportation.
“There’s no place in the city for new roads,” Crawford said. “The larger and more urban a place becomes, the more it becomes necessary to have public transportation,” Crawford said.
Lucie Ayer, executive director for the Hillsborough County planning commission agrees, adding that solutions to Tampa’s traffic problem must go beyond temporary fixes.
“I think we’ve got to be a lot more concerned about how we plan for the future,” Ayer said.
One such plan would involve the building of a streetcar-like system known as light rail. Proposed by the Metropolitan Planning Organization, or M.P.O, as part of its Long-Range Transportation Plan for 2025, the self-propelled light rail system would run from downtown to USF along the west side of campus.
However, getting the project off the ground isn’t so easy.
Crawford places the start date for construction “sometime between next week and never.” He said, while all the federal studies related to the project, including its environmental impact, have already been completed, getting taxpayers and politicians to buy into it is tough going.
“The problem is you have so many people who think a rail system is just wrong,” Crawford said.
Ayer said, while a lot of people are against the construction of a rail system, surveys show there are some people who want it.
One survey conducted by the M.P.O. showed that out of 286 comments about the rail, only 8 percent were negative.
Crawford said, while the rail system wouldn’t be cheap — it’s expected to cost $1.2 billion for 21.2 miles compared to widening roads or other similar measures, it’s a lot less expensive in the long run. He cited the fact that adding a lane in both directions on the interstate from 50th Street to downtown is going to cost $50 to $60 million per mile.
And, Crawford said, additional lanes won’t alleviate congestion because growth will continue, bringing the interstate right back to square one.
“If you did nothing, traffic wouldn’t get any worse,” Crawford said. “When they’re done, the level of service will be the same as it is now.”
Ayer echoed Crawford’s statements, adding that once a problem is fixed, because of development, another one crops up.
“Most of the time we end up fixing past problems,” Ayer said. “It’s a cycle that’s very hard to break.”
Crawford said a light rail system isn’t a new idea. He said a number of cities, including Dallas and Salt Lake City, have built rail systems.
“It’s not like we’re standing alone here in the woods,” Crawford said.