State Politics

Local mass transit hopes boosted by rail legislation

MANATEE — The Florida Legislature’s approval this week of a package of train legislation could eventually help link Manatee County with its neighbors.

In the long run, it could mean various forms of better mass transit here, with light rail lines linking Bradenton and Sarasota and express buses running in speedy, managed lanes along Interstate 75 among the earliest possibilities.

“It’s a first monumental step,” was the verdict of state Rep. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, whose efforts in 2007 resulted in the creation of the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority (TBARTA), which is developing a framework for transportation among Manatee and six other Tampa Bay-area counties.

“The legislation is a commitment by the state to promote and build commuter rail lines throughout the state. That is really what’s been lacking,” Galvano said. “That commitment will enable us to draw federal funds.”

It will also provide future opportunities for TBARTA to apply for money, he said, a necessary step to transform the merely theoretical to actual construction and operation of passenger rail lines and other forms of mass transit.

“These rail lines, like roadways, build upon themselves, and so, you would first see development in the more dense Tampa Bay area, but again, that is a necessary building block in order to see lines ultimately down into Sarasota and as far north as Citrus County under the TBARTA plan,” he said.

In May, TBARTA adopted a plan that calls for a regional network for 2035, including short-distance passenger rail connecting Bradenton and Sarasota; long-distance rail linking Bradenton and Tampa; express buses between Bradenton and St. Petersburg, and traversing I-75 from Sarasota County all the way north to Hernando County, according to plan documents.

“This is the first chance to get rail money,” explained Bradenton Mayor Wayne Poston, who has just rotated off TBARTA’s board.

“There are federal transportation dollars out there. They decided against spending more on the highways and will look more to rail. A comprehensive plan including commuter rail, light rail, express buses, even water taxis, would provide eligibility for federal dollars,” he said.

“It incorporates all the modes of transportation, a true inter-modal system.”

The train package passed Tuesday by the Florida Legislature during a special session is designed to bail out South Florida’s Tri-Rail system, kickstart an Orlando-area commuter rail project, and win billions of dollars in federal money for a high-speed train linking urban areas of the state.

The now-congested stretch between Tampa and Orlando is considered a prime possibility for a bullet train.

Hillsborough County will probably get first crack at rail money, since it is already discussing a sales tax referendum that would help pay for a Tampa commuter rail system, said Robert Clifford, TBARTA’s executive director.

“Right now, within the entire region, we’re looking at Hillsborough County being first,” Clifford said.

“Even though we have state dollars now to compete for, we still need to be able to show local funding sources, local revenue streams and Hillsborough is taking the first steps, kind of leading the region in the effort,” he said. “We’ll follow their lead.”

Meanwhile, the U.S. Congress has reached a transportation deal expected to provide money for rail in Tampa, Orlando and Miami, the second big boost for commuter rail this week, according to the office of U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Florida.

Congressional budget negotiators agreed to spend $40 million for an Orlando-area rail system, with a smaller amount, $1.7 million, provided for planning light rail in Tampa, and another $4 million for expansion of Metrorail in Miami, Nelson’s office said.

Once the two congressional chambers give formal approval to a reconciled measure, President Barack Obama is expected to sign the bill, Nelson said.

“Talk about back-to-back great news for Floridians who are tired of traffic jams — this is it,” said Nelson, a longtime proponent of high-speed and commuter rail. “The miracle of miracles has happened.”

Probably the most likely place in Manatee that passenger rail might appear first would be either a link between Sarasota and Bradenton, or one connecting Bradenton and Tampa, Clifford said.

“The connection between Bradenton and Tampa would be commuter rail, it could be on a CSX existing corridor that basically parallels U.S. 41 and I-75,” Clifford said.

However, details of where rail lines might go, how much they might cost and when they could be built, have yet to be decided.

“We need to answer those questions in order to effectively compete for funding,” Clifford added. “We’ll move forward to do that, and we think we’re well-positioned.”

— The Miami Herald/St. Petersburg Times Tallahassee Bureau contributed to this report.

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