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USF Polytechnic may be high speed rail stop

Though USF Tampa will not be receiving a light rail stop this legislative season, USF Polytechnic may secure a station on the first high speed rail (HSR) in the nation.

Three of five potential Lakeland HSR stations are located on the USF Polytechnic campus, said Nazih Haddad, chief operating officer for the Florida Rail Enterprise, the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) division overseeing the project.

Though a vote has not yet been scheduled, he said the Polytechnic campus was selected to house the stops because it is a beneficial area for growth and development.

“(We will have) one station site in Polk County, and we haven’t yet reached or made a conclusion (on where it will be),” he said. “We need to explore all our possibilities at this point.”

The Polytechnic campus first emerged as a potential stop during a Jan. 26 open meeting in Polk County. When the FDOT was re-evaluating plans to request federal stimulus funds to help pay for the project, they decided the stop should be in an area that is conducive to development.

“(In) the original studies no one was contemplating (Polytechnic as a site),” he said. “When we were doing the evaluation in 2009, that’s when the location surfaced. There was potential for that location, so we started looking into it.”

Stephen Reich, interim director for the USF Tampa Center for Urban Transportation Research, said the FDOT division overseeing the project, has worked with Florida Rail Enterprise to find the best route for the HSR to take through the community.

“You have to take into account the potential riders,” he said. “You need to take into account the distance between stops. A big key to it is the current and future land use and looking at what is being planned for the area immediately adjacent to the stop. Once the station is constructed, locational enhancement takes place there. (You have to consider) what kind of development will be attracted there (and) how much development will be there.”

The HSR will run from Tampa to Orlando and eventually extend to Miami. Other stations along the rail would include downtown Tampa, Disney World, Orlando International Airport, the Orange County Convention Center, and the undecided Lakeland location.

Reich said that even though he believes it is necessary to connect the Tampa campus area to the HSR, the main artery of the Tampa-Orlando rail will not extend past downtown Tampa, leaving the main USF campus outside of its route.

“Given the interest of the city of Tampa and given that the other side of the (USF Tampa) area that we looked at, (connecting USF Tampa) would have worked very well for a (traditional) type of alternative,” Haddad said. “But when we started looking at the other corridor, which is really more attuned to a true high speed rail system, the location of downtown Tampa became that much more superior.”

The HSR is projected to cost $2.8 billion. Currently, $2.4 billion of that cost is slated to be paid by the federal government.

However, Florida Gov. Rick Scott has yet to accept the money or announce his support for the project.

Though a 1 percent tax increase referendum to connect USF Tampa to the HSR with a slower light rail system failed to gain support in November’s midterm elections, Hillsborough Area Regional Transit (HART) is still exploring other options to connect the regions.

Public Information Officer for HART Marcia Mejia, said HART expects to open a busing system, called MetroRapid, from the rail to outlying areas by 2012.

“It’s a higher frequency of buses, less stops and the stations have higher passenger amenities, like ticket vending machines and passenger reader boards (that display bus schedules),” she said.

The bus route will connect USF to the downtown HSR station via Fletcher and Nebraska avenues.

Even so, HART has not given up on the prospect of a light rail system, said Mejia.

Last week, the HART executive board began discussing a “demonstration” light rail route connecting northwest Hillsborough County, Tampa International Airport and Westshore that Mejia said would show Tampa voters how the system would work, as well as the “enhanced mobility and economic benefits” the system would provide.

She said they have yet to decide if they will actually pursue the demonstration.

Reich said that regardless of the mechanism, Tampa students would be connected to the main HSR.

“Obviously the connection between our campus and the HSR system will have to be high on the priority list because it’s such a big destination in the accessibility that it gives,” he said. “The community is trying to regroup from the failure of the referendum. It’s still an issue that has to be addressed.”

Alice Murray, associate vice president for Campus Planning and Facilities Operations at USF Polytechnic, said the Polytechnic campus would reap many benefits if the proposed stations come into fruition.

“Students would be able to utilize the (HSR) to connect to the other (USF) locations,” she said. “They could just jump on or go to Tampa or Orlando. There would be opportunities for potential students wanting to come to the Polytechnic Campus from other places. Faculty could also utilize it to connect to both the campus and the (Polytechnic) Research Park.”