Miami has Tri-Rail...
Orlando has SunRail...
But what does the Tampa Bay region have?
The Tampa Bay region has NoRail!
The Justification for Rail Transit in the Tampa Bay Region:
Welcome to the Tampa Bay Transit Page at Interstate275Florida.com!
Before Interstates 275 as well as 75 and 4 were built in the region of West Central Florida we call the Tampa Bay region, the region was basically two major cities - St. Petersburg and Tampa - unified by the Gandy Bridge, built in 1924 and twinned in 1956. Clearwater and northern Pinellas County and Tampa were unified by the Ben T. Davis Causeway, which we formally know today as the Courtney Campbell Causeway. In fact, before Gandy and Courtney Campbell were built any trip between St. Petersburg and Tampa required a trip either by rail or by boat.
Until the mid- to late 1950's and the Tampa Bay region's first interstate highway came to town, Interstate 4. In 1960 the Howard Frankland Bridge opened as a four lane span that met interstate hghway standards at the time. St. Petersburg and Tampa were united again, this time by an interstate highway. Then in early to mid-1960's another interstate coming from the Georgia border came to town, and that was Interstate 75. When the decision was made to extend Interstate 75 south to Miami paralleling Southwest Florida and utilizing Alligator Alley, Interstate 75 was shifted to the east and the portion of Interstate 75 that went through Tampa, the Howard Frankland Bridge and St. Petersburg became Interstate 275 as we know today.
But what about rail service in the Tampa Bay region? Once the interstates took their basic foothold in the Tampa Bay region (with more interstate highway construction and the conversion of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge to interstate standards), passenger rail service ended up taking a hit as it was getting easier to move about the Tampa Bay region by car. The takeover of passenger rail service by Amtrak in 1971 didn't help that much; passenger rail service between St. Petersburg and Tampa continued but with schedules that would not benefit cross-bay commuters. In fact, when Amtrak took over nearly all of America's passenger rail network passenger service, including passenger service that was provided by Seaboard Coast Line (CSX's predecessor) between Tampa and Venice - utilizing the very same track that the Florida Railroad Museum in Parrish (a small Manatee County community 35 miles south of Tampa) uses for its weekend train excursions from Parrish to Willow and back - was discontinued.
Wanting to realign service between New York and Miami as a through train instead of service between New York and Miami/St. Petersburg (trains would split in Jacksonville or Wildwood, with one section going to and from St. Petersburg and the other section going to and from Miami, Amtrak discontinued passenger service to St. Petersburg in early 1984 and eventually the Tampa passenger stop at Tampa's Union Station would be made into a through stop instead of a terminal stop years later.
At the same time Amtrak service to and from St. Petersburg was discontinued, development in the Tampa Bay region took off at an unprecedented rate, with communities being built in the outlying suburbs. Clearwater and northern Pinellas County was being built out at a rapid pace, so were areas in unincorporated Hillsborough County such as Westchase and New Tampa to name a few. Unfortunately, our road and transit infrastructure could not keep up with development: In fact, the Howard Frankland Bridge was becoming overcrowded day and night and its lack of emergency shoulders was a recipe for gridlock.
The lack of capacity on the Tampa Bay region's interstates, plus bus based mass transit with schedules inconvenient for most people who commute to and from work daily, equated to more and more gridlock. The Florida DOT began to address this issue by constructing a second span of the Howard Frankland Bridge which opened in 1991 with the 1991 span carrying southbound traffic and the original 1960 span refurbished to carry northbound traffic. Widening projects were carried out on Interstate 275 on both sides of the Howard Frankland including the most recent widening in Tampa in 2016. Unfortunately, rapid growth in the Tampa Bay region could not keep pace with capacity on Interstate 275.
The Need for Commuter Rail in the Tampa Bay Region
In the late 1990's, Miami as well as South Florida did prudent planning for major widening and reconstruction of Interstate 95 through the region. Using a railroad track that basically parallels Interstate 95 which was used by Amtrak, it was decided that commuter rail service would be instituted on a temporary basis while Interstate 95 was being reconstructed. From that temporary idea, it became permanent and Tri-Rail was born. Today, Tri-Rail serves three South Florida counties - Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach - and carries commuters daily along with service on the weekends that makes getting around South Florida ideal. Connections to buses in all three South Florida counties plus a connection to Miami-Dade's Metrorail at Tri-Rail's Metrorail Transfer Station with schedules that coincide between train and bus make getting around South Florida ideal, especially for those who do not own a car as automobile insurance costs in South Florida are much higher than the rest of the state.
240 miles to the north on the Florida Turnpike in Orlando, the region was (and still is) experiencing its share of growing pains with development into the suburbs putting a strain on area expressways such as Interstate 4 as well as the East-West Expressway (FL Toll 408) and the Central Florida GreeneWay (FL Toll 417), among other things. Bus transit service could not keep up with rapid growth, as buses are subject to the same traffic delays as passenger cars are. Combine lackluster bus service and crowded expressways and you have a recipe for gridlock. Orlando's commuter rail needs were addressed with the Florida DOT purchasing a segment of the rail line that runs through Orlando and constructing stations that were convenienty located at downtown centers and, in 2014, SunRail was born. As of 2016 SunRail is basically a Monday through Friday service but there is talk of service expansion into the weekends which would enable SunRail to compete with South Florida's Tri-Rail.
Now what about the Tampa Bay region as far as commuter rail is concerned? Unfortunately, we in the Tampa Bay region do not have any form of commuter rail whatsoever. The only choices that residents of the Tampa Bay region have as far as rail travel is concerned is strictly excursionary: Either a day trip on an Amtrak coach from Tampa's Union Station to Winter Haven or Sebring, but traveling is dependent on the timeliness of the southbound Silver Star, Train 91, a trip on the TECO Line Streetcar between Ybor City and Downtown Tampa (which is operated by Hillsborough Area Regional Transit, or HARTline) or a trip south from Tampa or St. Petersburg to Parrish in Manatee County, the home of the Florida Railroad Museum where you get to ride on a six mile segment of what used to be the route of the Silver Meteor passenger train, the segment from Tampa to Venice. The Florida Railroad Museum's train runs only on the weekends and not only you get a train ride, you get to learn a lot of Florida railroad history from a friendly and helpful Car Host. To be short, a ride on Amtrak from Tampa to Winter Haven, a ride on the TECO Line Streetcar in downtown Tampa or a ride at the Florida Railroad Museum are the only train rides accessible to residents in the Tampa Bay region who want to make a day trip on the rails.
Why Does the Tampa Bay Region need Rail Based Mass Transit
The answer is very simple: Efficiency.
Unlike buses, which are subjected to the same traffic delays as motor vehicles are, rail based mass transit operates on its own right of way. The typical commuter lives in the outlying suburbs and commutes to work daily in the downtown core. With rail based mass transit, the commuter catches a commuter train at a station that is conveniently located to the commuter's home. Most commuter rail stations have a parking lot for commuters that drive a distance from the nearest commuter rail station. Once on board the train, the commuter can catch up on what needs to be done or just sit back and enjoy the ride to the downtown core. Once at the downtown core it's usually a short walk from the station to the office.
With commuter rail, the commuter is spared the prospect of being stuck in traffic during the morning and evening rush hour. It also spares the worry of the commuter being late for work due to traffic congestion despite leaving early. Not only there is a positive psychological impact, but there is also a positive financial impact as far as automobile maintenance is concerned.
Automobile ownership requires a constant financial commitment. Obviously the most important financial commitment when one owns an automobile is the car loan payment, which has to be paid until the car loan is paid in full. Another important financial comitment of automobile ownership is insurance, and I have discussed this not only on the Interstate 275 Florida Blog but on many Tampa Bay region transit related forums on Facebook. Anytime you get a quote for auto insurance, there is one major factor that determines how much you will pay in automobile insurance premium: How many miles do you drive one way between home and work?
Let's say you're lucky and your commute is not long, you live and work in downtown Tampa. More than likely you walk between home and work, and your auto insurance premium isn't that bad. Unfortunately, for the majority of Tampa Bay region residents, home prices in or near downtown business cores are prohibitively expensive necessitating having to live miles away in the suburbs and make the long commute to work. For instance, let's say you live in New Tampa and you commute to work at your office in downtown St. Petersburg. You got that right, downtown St. Petersburg. Tell an automobile insurer that (due to the long distance) and your auto insurance premiums skyrocket when you get the quote.
But there's a lot more financial commitment in automobile ownership besides car loan payments and insurance. There's maintenance that you have to do on the car, especially the oil changes and parts that eventually need replacement at a certain point. Use that automobile for long distance commuting to and from work and, in due time, the bumper to bumper automobile warranty will have run its course. And we can't overlook the most important financial commitment in automobile ownership: The price of gasoline. When gasoline spiked over the $4.00/gallon mark, more and more people did everything to help cut costs such as switching to smaller cars to riding mass transit to work.
Unfortunately, mass transit in the Tampa Bay region is disjointed and disorganized at best. Certain routes run from the early morning to the late evening hours, but the majority of bus routes only run during the day. If a commuter has a job requiring shift work or working nonstandard hours (such as second or third shifts), taking the bus in order to save money on automobile costs is out of the question. The disorganized state of current Tampa Bay region mass transit makes the Tampa Bay region a car-centric region meaning that an automobile is required. The more automobiles we put on our highways including Interstate 275, the congestion will get worse.
Another impact on the current state of Tampa Bay mass transit is on the employer side. Our current state of Tampa Bay mass transit has potential major employers looking elsewhere to other Florida metros such as Miami and Orlando. As for employers in the Tampa Bay region, when an employer hires an employee the employer hopes that the employee will remain with the employer for the long term, even going to great lengths to offer a generous compensation package. Unfortunately, the reason employees leave an employer among other things is the fact that the commute to work is too long and the lack of alternative modes of transportation to and from work; when an employee leaves, the employer has an expense in hiring a replacement and training the replacement, which can impact an employer's bottom line.
And we can't forget the special events that the Tampa Bay region plays host to, such as the Republican National Convention held in 2012 as well as the 2017 National College Football Championship. The chief concern expressed by people who descend on the Tampa Bay region for those special events is the lack of a robust mass transit system, especially the lack of a rail based mass transit system in the Tampa Bay region. A system of commuter rail plus feeder buses would help alleviate the demand on already limited on site event parking as well as demand on taxi and ridesharing services such as Uber and Lyft (after all, before and after special events (especially of significant importance) Uber and Lyft implement so-called "surge" pricing, meaning that pricing is much higher due to demand).
The Tampa Bay Express (TBX) Boondoggle
The Florida DOT wants to tackle the ever growing problem of traffic congestion in the Tampa Bay region. Unfortunately, the Florida DOT is headed in the wrong direction with a project that does not address the use of an alternate method of transportation in the Tampa Bay region - instead, it utilizes the automobile as the primary mode of transportation in the Tampa Bay region and adds a lot more to the congestion mix, and that project involves the construction of express lanes on Interstate 275 as well as Interstates 75 and 4. That project is called Tampa Bay Express, or TBX for short.
To give you an idea of how express lanes work, let's head south to Miami and the express lanes in use on Interstate 95. Being four lanes in each direction, the right three lanes of Interstate 95 are the general purpose lanes providing access to all exits, which is free like any other interstate highway. Now the left lane of Interstate 95 in Miami is delineated by pavement markings and upright posts to provide for an express method to get from one point to another. While the three right hand general purpose lanes are free, unfortunately in order to drive in the dedicated express left lane a toll has to be paid, and the toll is collected utilizing the Florida DOT's SunPass system where you open a prepaid toll account and you mount a transponder in your vehicle; tolls are collected when you pass under a toll gantry.
Now how much are the tolls if you want to use the express lanes? Unfortunately, tolls on the express lanes are not fixed in stone - instead, the tolls are variable depending on a number of factors, the most important factor being how much use the express lanes get. If traffic is light to about moderate a small toll would be collected but if traffic is heavy and the express lanes are being used oftener the tolls go up - and quite expensive. The fact that one must pay tolls in order to use the express lanes gives rise to the term Lexus Lanes, so named after the luxury brand of automobile.
Miami and Interstate 95 have express lanes in operation, and rightfully so because the Miami area has alternate modes of transportation thanks to Tri-Rail, South Florida's commuter railroad. However, to construct express lanes without an alternate mode of transportation is not right, and that is the purpose behind Tampa Bay Express (TBX) in the Tampa Bay region. What TBX will really accomplish is more and more traffic on Interstate 275 which leads to perpetual gridlock both day and night, weekday and weekend.
In all reality TBX needs to be scrapped and the monies that were earmarked for the construction of TBX should go instead towards the construction and implementation of rail based mass transit in the form of commuter rail and light rail in the Tampa Bay region. In addition, the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority - TBARTA for short - should go from being an advisory agency to a full fledged transportation authority similar to the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority (SFRTA) in the Miami area. What TBARTA should do is merge the two principal transit agencies in the Tampa Bay region, Hillsborough Area Regional Transit (HARTline) and the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA) into a seamless transportation authority operating rail based mass transit as well as bus based mass transit with schedules that would benefit all residents of the Tampa Bay region.
In short, the Florida DOT needs to do something to help break the Tampa Bay region of its over-dependence on the automobile as the only method of getting from Point A to Point B as well as everything inbetween in the Tampa Bay region. That fix is more meaningful modes of transportation such as rail based mass transit, not a Band-Aid applied on newly expanded sections of Interstate 275 thanks to TBX.
A Blueprint for Rail Based Mass Transit in the Tampa Bay Region
Implementing rail based mass transit in the Tampa Bay Region is doable and viable. It can be done.
First, we got the existing rail lines which are currently owned by CSX. The Florida DOT can go in and purchase the rail lines within the Tampa Bay region, which would include:
1. The rail line that runs from the Yeoman and Uceta Yards in Tampa, traveling around Tampa Bay and going through Clearwater and terminating in St. Petersburg. This is the existing CSX line called the Clearwater Subdivision and Amtrak once ran on this line when it offered service into St. Petersburg at the railroad station on 38 Av N just east of US 19 (34 St N).
2. The rail line that Amtrak currently uses in Tampa, commonly known as the A Line. This would include the A Line spur west of Tampa Union Station, the line that crosses the Hillsborough River and parallels the Selmon Crosstown Expressway all the way to Port Tampa on Westshore Blvd. Amtrak traffic does not go west of Tampa Union Station.
3. The rail line that branches off the Clearwater Subdivision just south of Busch Blvd. in Tampa and runs north to Brooksville. This line is called the Brooksville Subdivision.
4. The rail line that goes south from Tampa, paralleling US 41 to Bradenton and further south to Sarasota. This line is known as CSX's AZA Line and runs south to the Tropicana plant in Bradenton. South of the Tropicana plant the line going south to Sarasota is currently owned by the Seminole Gulf Railway, known for their murder mystery dinner train operation in Fort Myers. Yes, we can bring Bradenton and Sarasota into the Tampa Bay regional commuter rail mix.
Second, we have wide medians not only on Interstate 275 but on Interstate 4 as well. There is room to build commuter rail tracks down the center of these highways.
Third, we got the Howard Frankland Bridge to consider. The original span, built and opened to traffic in 1960, is nearing the end of its useful service life and will need replacement. In order to do this, a new northbound Howard Frankland should be built just to the south of the current northbound span. That would leave ample room for a third Howard Frankland Bridge span, and that span would be dedicated for commuter rail purposes.
Fourth, Interstate 275 in St. Petersburg would need median expansion to accommodate the commuter rail tracks, similar to the wide median on Interstate 275 in Tampa. It would be able to interconnect to the CSX Clearwater Subdivision rail line somewhere in St. Petersburg. Besides, a median expansion of this magnitude would not require much land acquisition similar to the enormous land acquisition that would be required if the Tampa Bay Express (TBX) project were constructed. (In fact, TBX calls for a new northbound Howard Frankland and a dedicated center span, and that dedicated center span would accommodate express lane traffic, not rail based mass transit.)
After rail based mass transit is implemented in the Tampa Bay region, the current bus transit network needs to be revamped twofold: First, to provide a seamless mode of transit instead of the disjointed bus mass transit as it is now. Second, the buses can feed into commuter rail at conveniently located stations throughout the route.
But there is one thing that is essential to the success of rail based mass transit in the Tampa Bay region: Service that is provided at convenient hours and offered seven days a week. Orlando's SunRail service is only offered Monday through Friday leaving people who can benefit from weekend service without an alternate means of getting from Point A to Point B. In other words, weeknight and weekend service is a must if rail based mass transit in the Tampa Bay region wants to survive.
Both Miami and Orlando have great choices when it comes to mass transit, especially rail based mass transit. Instead of being stuck in rush hour Interstate 95 traffic in Miami or Interstate 4 traffic in Orlando, their residents can hop on a commuter rail train to get to where they want to go. As for the Tampa Bay region, there needs to be meaningful rail based mass transit servicing the Tampa Bay region's principal areas, not continued dependence on the automobile. And people that reside in the Tampa Bay region should have access to rail based mass transit whether it may be for work or for taking a leisurely ride on the rails, and not just a 6.5 mile trip each way between Parrish and Willow as is the case with the weekend train rides at the Florida Railroad Museum.
If the Tampa Bay region wants to stand out alongside Miami and Orlando and attract the best, then it needs to implement rail based mass transit. Only after rail based mass transit is implemented in the Tampa Bay region will we see a definite impact on the Tampa Bay region's economy. Every day the Tampa Bay region is without alternative forms of mass transit, our Tampa Bay regional economy suffers in one form or another.
And if the Tampa Bay region implements rail based mass transit, our Tampa Bay region can stand out above other metros in the United States when it comes to being the site of professional football's highest honor, the Super Bowl. Besides, our Tampa Bay region was lucky to have hosted a few Super Bowls but the key for our region to be considered for a Super Bowl site is having a more robust mass transit system which includes commuter rail transit.
Links to Articles on Transit in the Tampa Bay Region
NOTE: Links to sites outside of Interstate275Florida.com, including links to Tampa Bay Times (St. Petersburg Times) articles, will open in their own window.
Tampa Bay Times article on why the Tampa Bay region has one of the worst public transportation systems in America - great piece of investigative work by Times staff writers Caitlin Johnston and Eli Zhang.
10 News WTSP also has an article on the Tampa Bay region being one of the worst transit systems in America. Contains a link to the Tampa Bay Times article mentioned above.