Making a connection

The Florida 2012 organization for the Olympics has a vision of Tampa united by a central transportation system. But when the United States Olympic Committee visited the city in early August, they said this vital concern was missing.

But Tampa, like many cities in America, is debating transportation and its effects on community development.

While light rail transit was once considered an ?alternative? transportation plan in the way that ?alternative? music was once a genre, some believe government entities have spent billions of tax dollars every year on roads and highways, but little is done to provide choices to those citizens who would prefer not to drive or to drive as little as possible.

Light rail consists of tramways and trains that are powered either by electricity or diesel fuel and follow a rail track, whether it be monorail, traditional railroad tracks or others.

The Tampa Rail Project is an organization currently studying these light rail methods. Advocates for the program cite several reasons for pursuing it. Traffic congestion and urban sprawl are two such topics often raised when cities consider adding rail to their public urban transportation options.

Ed Crawford, public liaison for the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority (HART), would like to see more options for people who choose not to drive. Crawford has been involved in Tampa public transit issues for several years.

?No matter what we do, traffic will get worse,? Crawford said. ?The question is, ?Are you going to have a choice about some alternative mode of transportation???

HARTLine is the proposed organization that would be in charge of the rail system, and has been researching the feasibility of adding rail to the bay area?s public transportation network.

USF student Josef Norgan said public transportation is a vital part of any city, and said Tampa is seriously lacking in this area.

?(Tampa) is a fake city as it is,? he said. ?With the introduction of mass transit, it will be one step closer to being a real city.?

The high-speed rail initiative passed by referendum in last November?s election. The constitution now requires that construction begin on the high-speed train system by 2003.

There is also consideration of a high-speed rail at the federal level, with a Tampa-Orlando connection being a strong candidate for a new Amtrak line. Amtrak operates one high-speed train that runs between Washington D.C. and Boston.

Steven Polzin, senior research associate at USF?s Center for Urban Transportation Research, said the Tampa Rail Project will most likely present voters with an opportunity to show their support with their pockets. Voters will decide whether they are willing to pay for a finalized project plan with tax dollars. The cost of the project depends on which plan citizens choose to implement and how long it takes to begin building. Every year it is delayed, the costs increase. The current estimates range from approximately $600 million to just over $1.2 billion.

If a new rail is to exist in Tampa?s future, it will likely be paid for by a combination of federal, state and local funds. The figures presented at the first public hearing claimed it is likely that federal money will pay for half of the project while state and local funds each would pay approximately 25 percent of the remaining costs.

County Commissioner Jan Platt supports the idea of further activating downtown by making it the center of public transportation. She called herself ?a strong supporter of public transportation.?

?All major transit systems should feed to downtown,? Platt said.

She said that downtown should serve as the hub of a rail transit program in Hillsborough County?s transportation network.

Polzin said that Tampa does not have the same degree of consensus as other areas and that this is a challenge to forming a vision like those formed in other cities.

?Tampa is beginning to rethink downtown?s function,? Polzin said. ?And (it?s) leaning toward adding residences and entertainment opportunities, thereby making it a 24 hour use area.?

USF student Aida Progri was excited by the idea that trains might be available for public transport in the not-too-distant future. Progri is from Albania, and said she was amazed at the lack of mass transit in Tampa compared to Europe.

While the current rail proposal does not extend to her home in Clearwater, she said she would be willing to pay a higher sales tax to begin the process of bringing rail to the Tampa region.

?I?m going to be in this area for a while,? she said. ?I?d prefer public transit to driving.?

Contact Robert J. Cooksey at