Tampa Bay Light Rail (Part 1)

It’s been a hot button topic in Tampa Bay for many years: Light Rail – to build or not to build?

As early as the 1970’s, it’s been talked about over and over in the area. Advocates say that it’s years overdue, will better the economy of the area, and is a much more practical solution than continually building and expanding roads. Opponents say that the small number of transit passengers in the area doesn’t warrant the costly expenditures and maintenance and are vehemently opposed to any increase in taxes to pay for the system.

This is a pro-transit blog, and as such, I am on the side of the advocates. Having spent several months living in Tampa earlier this year, I got a first-hand look at just how badly the Tampa Bay area needs light rail. Transit ridership has been continually growing month after month (so many months in a row that I’ve lost track) on HART, and PSTA has been setting their own record ridership numbers. Keeping in mind that these ridership increases have happened in the midst of service cuts, fare hikes, and the recession, it’s fairly obvious that transit is proving itself.

In November 2010, HART went to the voters to ask for a 1% sales tax to pay for transit and road projects. The plan was ambitious and would have bought a LOT of transit. Sadly, the referendum failed largely in part to the opposition of rural precincts who don’t get transit service from HART and are largely conservative anti-tax voters. It has also been argued that advocates of the plan did a poor job spelling out the benefits of the tax increase for everyone in the county, and distancing it from a completely separate issue related to the HSR proposal between Tampa and Orlando. Across the bay, PSTA has been working on their own plan for a light rail system, recently releasing an “Alternative-Analysis” (AA) plan for an initial light rail line running between Clearwater and St. Petersburg via the Gateway business district.

In November this year, media in the area reported on Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn’s proposal to hold a city-only referendum for a transit sales tax. It was noted that in the November 2010 vote, the precincts in Tampa city limits approved the referendum. (Tampa composes just 13.5% of the county by land and 27% by population, and apart from Temple Terrace and Plant City, the county is entirely unincorporated). The issue with this is that it is illegal to hold this vote under current Florida state law. With a Republican controlled legislature and Governor, advocates are cautiously optimistic that they’ll even be able to put this on a ballot in the next few years.

With every proposal that has come up over the years, one of the biggest issues has always been where exactly the light rail lines should go. In most cases, it’s been generally agreed upon that a line between Downtown Tampa and the University of South Florida is among the highest priorities in Hillsborough County. In Pinellas County, every proposal has shown a line between Clearwater and St. Petersburg, though the more recent ones have the deviation to the Gateway business district. Other areas that would be served by proposed light rail lines have included the Westshore business district, Tampa International Airport, South St. Petersburg, Pinellas Park, Largo, North Pinellas County, Brandon, Carrollwood,and South Tampa. For some of the proposed lines, existing freight railroad ROW would be used. For other lines with no vacant ROW available, some proposals have used the median of the Interstate highway while others put the light rail trains in traffic along existing local roads (referred to as “street-running”). Coming up with a plan for a fully built out light rail system is not easy. The Tampa Bay area is very sprawled out (rivaling the size of the Metro Phoenix area) owing to the years of car-centric development. As such, the population and economic centers are all over the place. However, if done right, a light rail system could connect all these areas while improving the livability of Tampa Bay.

With 6 different lines spanning 136 miles (or about 124.5 miles excluding shared trackage), this proposed system would cover a large majority of the Tampa Bay metro area. (Note that the Brandenton/Sarasota area is excluded from this proposal, but they are working on their own proposal for a high-capacity transit system.) The three major cities of the metro – Clearwater, St. Petersburg, and Tampa – function as major hubs and transfer points between multiple lines. Major employment/commercial centers such as Gateway in Pinellas County and Westshore, Tampa International Airport, and the University area in Hillsborough County. Outlying cities such as Brandon, Palm Harbor, and Pinellas Park are also connected to the system. Potential stations for the lines are not shown on the map, but the plan assumes that most stops will be spaced a minimum of 1 mile apart, excluding the downtown areas of the three major cities. The plan also assumes that peak headways will be somewhere betwen every 3 and 7.5 minutes while off-peak headways will be no greater than every 15 minutes. Ideally, trains will always be running every 10 minutes or less. During night hours (referred to as “Owl Service”), trains on select lines would be running at least every 30 minutes, though they would have to be “single-tracking” in order for track maintenance to occur. This system would be built in conjunction with a separately proposed commuter rail system for the area.

Obviously, major hurdles would have to be overcome to build this system. First and foremost, securing the coveted ROW. A large majority of this proposed system uses existing railroad ROW. Some of it is still actively used by owner CSX, but some trackage has been abandoned. (In the case of the Blue Line west of Tropicana Field, the railroad ROW has been converted into a pedestrian/bicycle trail.) Other trackage, such as the Red Line between the I-4/Selmon Expressway Connector and Brandon, would run at ground level in the median of the road. Through the downtown areas of the three major cities, the lines would be street-running. Clearwater would see trains on East Ave, St. Petersburg on Central Ave, and Tampa on Polk St. In St. Petersburg, it’s also possible that Central Ave could be turned into a Transit Mall between Downtown and Tropicana Field. Finding a way to make this plan politically viable is also a major hurdle to clear. As mentioned earlier, voters have shown in the past that their support for transit is severely limited. Unfortunately, this is a problem found across Florida and other southern states. Primary phases of the system would have to be built with little to no impact to the surrounding community, lest it create opposition to the system and a negative stigma that would prevent the success of further additions from happening. It’s almost certain that an increase in the sales tax would be needed to fund the construction and operation of the system. Typically, the lower the percentage, the more likely it would pass in a referendum. Most likely, a 0.5% tax would suffice, though a 1% tax would allow the system to be built much faster along with BRT lines and supplementary enhancements to fixed-route, paratransit, and park-and-ride services. In the November 2010 HART referendum, it was projected that a 1% tax would bring in $230 million per year in Hillsborough County, with 75% for transit and 25% for roads. Assuming that tax revenue would be relatively equitable in Hillsborough and Pinellas Counties, we can assume that same amount would be brought in each year with a 0.5% tax levied through both counties. With the average cost of construction for US light rail systems running around $35 million per mile, it would take several years to procure funding for the primary phase of construction, though it’s likely costs would be cheaper as the primary phases would use mostly railroad ROW. (For a comparison, Charlotte NC built their initial line at a cost of about $24.5 million per mile).

The design of the stations is perhaps one of my favorite parts of this proposal. Simple and cost-effective, the stations would be built in what I’ll refer to as a “Lego System.” Minus the concrete platforms, the stations would be completely pre-fabricated. Each station segment, or “Lego,” would be long enough for one light rail car, or 100 feet in length. So, if a station were to be built for two-car trains, it would take two “Legos” and would be 200 feet in length. Apart from the downtown stations, all stations would be built with sufficient room to accommodate four-car trains in the future. Due to the short city blocks in Downtown Tampa, the Green and Red Line would only be able to accommodate two-car trains. Some stations would be island platforms, but for the most part preference would be given to center platform stations. Apart from the fact that they take up less room and cost less, center platform stations also function quite well when passengers need to transfer between lines. As an example, if a passenger was riding from Brandon to the University area, they would board the Red Line, alight at the East Ybor City Station, go to the other side of the platform, transfer to a Green Line train, and end their journey in the University area. Some select stations, primarily major hubs/transfer stations, would be individually designed and catered to the respective neighborhood. As an example, Sulpher Springs Station (located at the junction of the Green and Yellow Lines; also serving as a stop on the North Line commuter route) could be built to replicate the look of the Sulpher Springs Hotel.

Already touched on earlier, significant parts of the system would be using railroad ROW. At this time, all the railroad ROW that the light rail lines are proposed to use are being actively used by CSX. Most activity occurs between the railyards in East Tampa and the auto yard north of the airport in Anderson Industrial Park, though it is reported that up to four trains a day use the line between Clearwater and St. Petersburg. The ROW of the lines running through some of the older developed areas (Green Line between Tampa and University, all of the Orange Line) is only 50 feet in width, which is the same width that most systems have used as a minimum for their trackage ROW. While CSX is using the lines sparingly, it is very unlikely that they would want to abandon the customers they currently serve on their trackage in the Tampa Bay area.  To ensure reliability of service and full operational control, the railroad ROW would have to be purchased from CSX. The next part is where it gets interesting however – CSX could then lease track rights back. Though uncommon in the US, light rail tracks can be used by freight/passenger trains and vice versa. Both use standard gauge tracks and the track curve/grade minimums are essentially the same. Standard freight and passenger rail cars are a maximum of 13ft tall, so catenary (overhead power wires) would be unaffected. If CSX were to share the tracks with light rail, the light rail cars would have to be low-floor, as high-floor platforms would be incompatible with their rail cars. Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) rules dictate that freight/passenger trains can not be on the same tracks as a non-FRA compatible vehicle (i.e., a light rail car) at the same time. As CSX is running limited operations on these lines, the easiest way to adapt to this rule would be to let light rail have the full reign of the tracks during regular service hours, while CSX trains could be dispatched in designated blocks in between the 30-minute headway light rail trains running during Owl Service. Assuming that CSX would only be running their usual 6 daily trains along the line, it would be quite easy to fit them into separate blocks during the night hours (about 12AM-5AM) while leaving plenty of scheduling padding to assure that CSX and light rail trains would remain safely away from one another. For some precedent in how this works, see this FTA report on how UTA’s “Trax” developed a way to have light rail trains and freight trains share the same tracks. New Jersey Transit also has a similar arrangement on two of their lines.


In Part 2, I’ll discuss the proposed lines and stations in-depth and how the lines would be built.


4 Comments on “Tampa Bay Light Rail (Part 1)”

  1. Adron says:

    I’m with you on this one. I wish several places in Florida would get their shit together when it comes to transit & expanding things that actually build community instead of pull it apart. Suburbia is slowly but readily being curbed. Not just by politicians, but by the market. Building infrastructure NOW can only improve the outlook that everybody – even those grognards that are determined to stay in suburbia or rural America.

    • I agree with the both of you. We need to end the political games and expand transit as much as we can. The only other metro area that is without solid transit right now is Detroit, MI, by which their economy is currently in even more dire straits than the Tampa area. Do we want to continue being isolated from the rest of the transit world? I think not…

  2. […] the meantime, I invite you to check out Zac Ziegler’s latest post on Tampa’s light rail ambitions. This post comes not very long after a recent poll showed that many Tampanians seem to support a […]

  3. […] posting about what could have been if the 2010 Hillsborough transit tax had passed and introducing my own proposal for a Tampa Bay light rail system. Among my most recent Tampa Bay transit posts, arguably the most popular of them, was my coverage […]

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