By Kyle LoJacono
A year ago, rail was the focus of any discussion on regional transportation, but two key rejections have tabled most talk by various development groups on the mass transit option.
In November, Hillsborough County residents voted a resounding no to increasing sales tax by a penny to, in part, fund light rail in the county. In February, Gov. Rick Scott also refused $2.4 billion in federal money to build a high speed rail system to connect Orlando and Tampa.
“Those two things have really reduced the likelihood of any kind of large rail system in the region anytime soon,” said Pasco County Commission chairwoman Ann Hildebrand.
Hildebrand is also Pasco’s representative on the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority (TBARTA). She said no official action has been taken by TBARTA to end discussion on rail, but said almost all their proposals hinged on Hillsborough voters and the governor.
“The high speed rail was going to connect central Florida,” Hildebrand said. “Light rail was going to connect Hillsborough to that high speed line and once that was built, the commissioners in Pasco were going to work to get our own light rail system to connect with Hillsborough. A lot has changed.”
Hildebrand proposed a plan to try and pass a regional tax to fund light rail, which would include Pasco, Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, but recent actions by another regional transportation planning board seems to put any such deal in serious doubt.
Hillsborough Area Rapid Transit (HART) took the official action of winding down planning and exploring light rail in the county, including ending any additional funding. To date, HART has spent nearly $1.5 million studying how light rail lines could be used in the county. That could save as much as $300,000 in proposed future studies.
“Right now, continuing to fund something our voters have voted no to doesn’t make sense,” said Hillsborough Commissioner and HART board member Mark Sharpe. “We have less money to do anything with right now, so we need to focus on what our citizens want.
“That doesn’t mean light rail is dead for good,” Sharpe continued. “It just means we have to look at the most important thing and prioritize what we do.”
Federal money for a rail system can only be given if counties perform such studies as what HART has already done. By winding down funding instead of immediately halting the studies, HART members predict such money could be sought in the future.
Sharpe said HART will likely shift the focus of discussion and spending to improve county bus services.
The news of a shift in focus away from rail is a victory for No Tax for Tracks, a Tampa Bay area group that fought to keep Hillsborough voters from passing the tax last year.
John Hendricks, one of the group’s founders, said any plan to bring rail to Tampa Bay is a bad idea.
“The (Hillsborough) plan would help a few people in Tampa, but everyone in Hillsborough would have to pay for it,” Hendricks said. “It doesn’t make sense to spend that kind of money on something that most people can’t use.”
Hendricks said improved roadways are the best way to help with transportation.
The Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) is currently doing a $1.7 million study to see if a short-distance rail line to connect Wesley Chapel in Pasco County to the University of South Florida (USF) would be beneficial.
Elba Lopez, FDOT’s public transit/intermodal administrator for the area, has said the study is still very early in the process and no system would be put in place for many years, if at all. The plan would be to run the rail line along Bruce B. Downs Boulevard from SR 54 in Wesley Chapel south to USF, a stretch of 50 miles. Stops would likely be at places like The Grove at Wesley Chapel, The Shops at Wiregrass, University Community Hospital and USF.
Whatever the findings, public sentiment seems to have moved off rails.
“We would have liked to have seen rail go into place now, but we have a lot of other things to worry about,” Hildebrand said. “We’ll see what the future holds, but it’s likely to be in the future and not the present.”
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