Taking aim at traffic woes

A transit study will take a regional approach in trying to identify a solution to unsnarl Tampa Bay’s traffic congestion, and, qualify for federal aid.

Jacob Engineering will conduct the 24-month study for Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties. The approximately $1.5 million cost will be paid for by the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority, commonly called HART and the Florida Department of Transportation, called FDOT for short.

A transit study will seek solutions for congestion problems in Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties. One logjam motorists often face is at the intersection of U.S. 41 and State Road 54 in Land O’ Lakes. (File Photo)
A transit study will seek solutions for congestion problems in Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties. One logjam motorists often face is at the intersection of U.S. 41 and State Road 54 in Land O’ Lakes.
(File Photo)

Consultants are expected to begin work on Oct. 1, following expected approval of the contract by HART on Sept. 12.

Commuter rail, light rail, bus rapid transit service and express bus service will be among transit alternatives reviewed in the study.

“Tampa Bay is one of the very few large regional areas that does not have premier transit service to connect its region,” said Steve Feigenbaum, HART’S director of service development. “This is a truly regional study, a three-county study, for transit options for our region.”

Feigenbaum made a presentation on the study to members of the Pasco Metropolitan Planning Organization’s board on Sept. 8 in Dade City.

About 50 percent of Pasco residents commute to jobs outside the county, he said. “Where are their transit options?”

In the past year, Pasco residents have been asked their views on a range of transportation issues, most often focused on traffic congestion in high growth areas such as State Road 54 and State Road 56.

A slew of road projects are under construction or under review to reconfigure or widen roads and highways throughout the county.

Commuters heading south on Interstate 275 daily confront road lanes jammed with motorists trying to get to work.

Recently, FDOT held public meetings to gain support for the Tampa Bay Express, a controversial road project to widen portions of I-275 and Interstate 4.

Only limited bus transit links Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco counties.

Feigenbaum said the study will recommend a single project that is doable, links all three counties and would qualify for funding from the Federal Transit Administration, an agency within the U.S. Department of Transportation. Other options will be included in the study, along with reasons why they didn’t make the final cut.

Pasco County Commissioner Jack Mariano wondered about the feasibility of purchasing CSX rail lines for future passenger rail service.

The Land O’ Lakes area often is mentioned as an area where rail stops would boost local commercial and residential development. The area includes CSX rail lines crossing through the intersection of U.S. 41 and State Road 54.

But, Feigenbaum cautioned against thinking that the study would focus on CSX.

“It’s not a CSX study,” he said. “That will be a component of it.”

The cost of buying the rail lines would only be a starting point, he said.

The rail lines were built for freight and would have to be upgraded to handle passenger service. “There’s still going to have to be some consideration of construction and cost. It’s an important component, but it will be included with everything else.”

Feigenbaum said the FTA looks to fund projects that boost economic development and show a return on investment.

“Without those particular elements, it becomes just another shelf piece,” he said. “Some (prior) studies have so much dust, they are growing corn. But, that’s another story.”

Initially, consultants will look at those previous studies, whether they produced transit projects or not, and compile them into a unified, coherent report.

“We don’t want to invent the wheel,” Feigenbaum said.

There also will be public outreach with town halls, telephone town halls and other events to gather community opinions.

Once the initial study is completed, environmental and design work will be done before an application can be submitted to the federal transit agency.

It could take up to five years to qualify for a fully funded grant, Feigenbaum said. “It’s an arduous process.”

Published September 14, 2016

Dade City train issues draw federal attention

A problem with CSX Corp. stopping trains in the middle of intersections in Dade City has drawn attention not just from local officials, like Dade City city manager William Poe and Pasco County sheriff Chris Nocco, but from a Congressman as well.

U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis says he has initiated a Federal Railroad Administration investigation into CSX after the company twice stopped trains in the middle of roads, because of what they said were federally mandated stop times for workers.

“As Pasco County’s voice in the United States Congress, I echo the concerns raised by the police chief, sheriff and other community leaders regarding the recent CSX situation,” Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, said in a release. “These preventable delays posed not only considerable inconvenience to residents, but more importantly, they represented an irresponsible and flagrant disregard for the public safety needs of our community.”

It’s not exactly clear what the railroad administration will be able to do. However, Bilirakis said he was assured by officials within the agency that they will conduct a “thorough investigation into what occurred in both cases, and take proactive steps to ensure that similar incidents are avoided.”

The problem stemmed from two separate incidents in July and August where engineers stopped trains after meeting the maximum number of hours they could work. The engines, according to local officials, were left running and unattended, in one case blocking three of the four available intersections in and out of a neighborhood for more than five hours.

That resulted in an angry letter from Poe soon after, decrying CSX for creating potential safety issues, and forcing local law enforcement to help secure the train and direct traffic.

“This thoughtless action on the part of your crew created a tremendous strain on our ability to provide essential public safety services,” Poe said in a July 16 letter to CSX. “The area adjacent to the train tracks is a residential neighborhood, and the roadways that were blocked provide the main access to numerous other neighborhoods, schools, parks, (a) cemetery and other facilities. A high volume of pedestrians, as well as vehicular traffic, go through this neighborhood on a daily basis.”

CSX responded to the complaints by saying they would work to avoid blocking intersections for long periods of time in the future. And when they do, they will give local officials a heads up, and separate train cars so that intersections are clear for vehicular traffic.

A CSX spokeswoman told The Laker/Lutz News in a statement Wednesday that is “apologizes for the disruptions caused by trains blocking road crossings in Dade City. We understand the frustrations of residents and local officials, and are making operational adjustments. CSX will make every attempt to keep trains running through Dade City except under emergency circumstances.”

CSX also heard from Bilirakis’ office as well.

“I also called leaders within CSX to put them on notice that this type of behavior is unacceptable, and will not be tolerated,” Bilirakis said. “The people of Pasco do deserve better than this, and I will not rest until I receive assurances that those responsible will be held accountable and that proper plans are in place to prioritize the health, safety and well-being of our community.”

The Federal Railroad Administration is one of 10 agencies within the U.S. Department of Transportation that deals with intermodal transportation, according to the group’s website. It was created by the Department of Transportation Act of 1966. It is led by fifth-generation railroader Joseph Szabo.