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Vague plans won’t result in mass transit

I can’t believe it. Light rail is coming to Tampa – maybe.

The Hillsborough County City-County Planning Commission voted unanimously for a resolution to bring commuter rail to the Tampa area. I drove downtown during rush hour to the special meeting, certain the commission would vote against it. After all, this isn’t exactly the first time such an idea has been proposed. As you may have noticed whenever you find yourself stuck during rush hour on the interstate “parking” system that surrounds Tampa, previous proposals have not gone well for rail transit supporters.

This effort, despite the commission’s vote, still leaves plenty of room for failure. The planning commission only voted to “encourage” the county to pursue “alternative forms of transportation that includes roads, light rail, bus rapid transit” and others. My excitement is already dwindling.

The resolution’s title is “Rail Transit,” yet rail isn’t even the first conveyance mentioned. Some obscure alternative form of transportation they call a “road” got top billing.

I was so elated by the vote I wanted to clap and cheer as though something important was accomplished, like scoring a winning goal.

The commission voted to move Tampa into the present. Now Detroit won’t be the only place that gets mentioned when discussing the few large urban areas without rail transit.

But as I drove away from the special meeting, I thought over what the potential routes might be. Would they connect USF to the beaches? Would I be able to get to Ybor City by train?

Then it hit me. Actual routes were not discussed – neither was funding. Now that I think about it, not much was actually discussed other than the fact that the Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater area and the Detroit area are the places ranked in the top 25 by population to not have commuter rail service.

This has happened before. A few years back, Florida’s voters supported an amendment requiring the building of a high-speed rail system. The proposal had problems – mostly no mention of how to fund it or where to build it – just like the resolution passed Monday night. The original amendment was repealed a few years ago.

The new idea doesn’t have to suffer the same fate. While it is substantially different from the high-speed rail idea that was proposed previously, it is fraught with similar problems and is sure to be opposed by similar people.

Its most glaring weakness is the language in which it is written. It needs to have teeth. What needs to take place now is coordination with the other counties in the region – Pinellas, Manatee, Sarasota, Pasco and Polk at least – to come up with firm route ideas. The sooner actual routes can be planned, the sooner the idea will materialize.

Also, funding needs to be secured. It needs to be worked into the transportation budgets of Hillsborough and the surrounding counties. The people responsible for said budgets also need to resist negative forces offering false support.

During the recent election, candidates running for several offices were asked whether they support light rail. Often candidates, usually Republicans, would respond that they are in favor of it, provided it is fully supported by rider fares. This is not real support. Imagine if a new road was required to be fully supported financially by its users. Sure, there are toll roads, but the tolls do not come close to supporting the cost of the road’s construction and maintenance.

When new toll roads are built, politicians rarely ask if they will recover the costs from tolls. This is amazing, considering how much it costs to build roads. According to former planning commission member Jan Smith, who spoke Monday, converting the Veteran’s Expressway to eight lanes as has been proposed will cost between $500 and $650 million, not including costs for a noise wall. That’s three times as much as the estimated costs of a small rail system, and not nearly as environmentally friendly.

Mass transit is cleaner environmentally, and it could even be less expensive if properly implemented. Public transportation solutions have been adopted by cities across the country and around the world. From the subway system in New York City – no, it’s not dangerous anymore – to the clean, safe Metro lines in the nation’s capital, mass transit is an ideal form of getting from place to place.

Given the choice of sitting in traffic listening to my brake pads grind away or paying a little extra in taxes so mass transit can gain a foothold in this city, I’d rather take the solution that lets me sit in a train car, peacefully reading the newspaper – if not today, at least tomorrow.

Josh Corban is a senior majoring in anthropology.