CLEARWATER – To many people, a light rail transportation system between Clearwater and Tampa is the wave of the future. But others believe that it would be a costly boondoggle to build and a money pit to operate.
On Aug. 16, the Clearwater City Council, which had been sitting on the fence, formally adopted a resolution in favor of the system. But not everyone was pleased.
“The fare box is not going to pay for this,” conservative activist Joe Paige told the council. “This is going to saddle the taxpayers with debt pretty much as far as the eye can see.”
While admitting that the system won’t be self-supporting, Vice Mayor Paul Gibson said that it should be built anyway.
“There is not a transit system in the United States of America that is not subsidized,” Gibson said. “Not one.”
The resolution was the brainchild of Councilmembers Doreen Hock-DiPolito and Bill Jonson. It grew out a “visioning project,” called One Bay, which several regional entities jointly conducted in 2007.
“The initiative drew upon thousands of citizens to create a shared regional vision plan where future population and employment growth should occur based upon responsible land use, mobility, economic and environmental sustainability,” the Clearwater resolution says of that project.
The resolution notes that the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority has developed a regional master plan for transit, and the Florida Department of Transportation and the Tampa Bay Area Rapid Transit Authority have jointly initiated a feasibility study that calls for a new eastbound span of the Howard Frankland Bridge to have “a cross bay exclusive transit link.” It adds that several regional transportation agencies have conducted an Alternative Analysis Study to determine the locally preferred method of “premium transit service.”
That study concluded “that Light Rail Transit Service is the preferred transit option to connect Clearwater, Largo, the Greater Gateway area, Pinellas Park and St. Petersburg in Pinellas County, with a regional rail connection across the Howard Frankland Bridge,” according to the resolution. In addition, the Clearwater resolution calls for “a premium bus connection” along State Road 60 to Hillsborough County.
“The city of Clearwater recognizes that regional Light Rail Transit is crucial to the sustainable growth and development of the Tampa Bay Region” and is consistent with the city’s Comprehensive Plan, the resolution says.
“Clearly our existing highway system will not be able to keep up with this increase in demand,” the resolution quotes Florida Department of Transportation Secretary Ananth Prasad as saying in an Aug. 6, 2012 article in the Tampa Tribune. “The core of our approach is to get the most we can from our existing highway corridors and encouraging the use of ridesharing and transit alternatives.”
In addition to thinking regionally, the resolution paid special attention to Clearwater’s main north-south corridor, U.S. 19. It noted that a 2007 FDOT study called for the use of mass transit to solve highway congestion problems, and a TBARTA master plan calls for busses on U.S. 19 in the northern part of Pinellas County.
In its conclusion, the resolution supports the concept of light rail between Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, and a system of express busses and pedestrian overpasses to improve mobility within the U.S. 19 corridor. It supports a “Premium Bus Connection” between the two counties, but wants a “Bus Study” before a funding referendum is submitted to the voters. It calls for a cost-benefit analysis of various design options and promises that the “City of Clearwater will commit to use its resources to inform the public of the cost and benefit of the transportation plan.”