HART approves light rail as the mode of transportation in asking for money from the feds, but not without some consternation

Then HART board member and Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin Beckner got into the mix, expressing concern  about the board's proposal being rejected by the feds.

HART's Mary Shavalier said that the way it works to get federal funding is that a local community initially picks a project, and if it's a "fixed guideway" it has to be compared to how an enhanced bus service would work.

Beckner asked if it wouldn't be prudent to do a local study with more specifics on how light rail is the better way to go than BRT.  "I understand the intangibles," Beckner said, referencing the potential for redevelopment.  "I'm trying to project our break event point and the justification for spending twice as much for light rail," he said.

Beckner, who will be up for re-election in 2012, added, "I believe we need to give our constituents and the people that I represent, and those that have trust and faith in us, that we're going to be making good economic decisions."

Earlier a light rail critic, tea party member Michael Capria, assailed the HART board for eschewing expanded bus service for light rail, saying, "We have less expensive, better solutions.  Don't tax the poor for snobs to ride expensive light rail."

There was also lots of talk about the North and West Corridors, the two different corridors that HART still has yet to decide upon to begin construction of a rail line, contingent on what happens at the polls.  Although no decision was made,  there seemed to be more emphasis on using a Northeast or West corridor that utilizes I-275, than two possible Northeast corridors that would rely on CSX tracks.  A big factor there is money, with HART having to spend over $679 million to buy CSX tracks to use for a possible route.

The CSX route would go through 30th street and possibly 22nd street in East Tampa, which businesswoman Diane Hart says would be great for the community.  She said she was troubled that she heard less about those corridors than the ones that would use I-275.

Hart is also the head of the Hillsborough County Democratic Black Caucus, and she said she was upset that with all the advocacy that she and her organization have brought towards supporting the transit tax, it would be extremely disappointing if HART chose for the first route a line that will not cut through East Tampa.

"I have stood with my community to give support to the light rail...but never have you ever, really truly considered East Tampa community and that 30th street corridor.  All I kept hearing was I-275, I-275.  It concerns me greatly because, yes as I-275 is close to East Tampa, 30th Street runs directly through the community."

Hart also said after hearing the discussion that disturbed her Monday morning, she was debating whether to distribute 50,000 slate cards in the county advocating support for the transit referendum.

When it came time to vote, Board members Rose Ferlita and Curtis Stokes abstained, mentioning properties they own that could be ultimately chosen near the corridors that will be named next month.  Polzin voted against an earlier vote on MetroRapid.

As early voting commenced Monday, one of the biggest issues on the ballot in Hillsborough County is voting on a penny sales tax referendum that would help construct the beginnings of a light rail system.

But until this morning, the HART board had yet to weigh in on whether the preferred mode of transportation that they hope to bring to the feds for funding would be light rail, or BRT (Bus Rapid Transit), which allows buses to move quickly through city streets by using exclusive lanes, limited stops and manipulating street lights.

George Walton, Deputy Director of PB Americas consulting for HART, spoke for close to an hour about how the transit agency has spent the past 15 months in going through what is known as the Alternative Analysis, required by the federal government when requesting transportation money on a project.

Walton said that BRT had a lower capital cost -by half- than what light rail would cost (estimated at $1.1 billion).  Rail would be more expensive because of electrification and tracks.  He also said that when it comes to air quality, light rail was "substantially superior" to a BRT system, mentioning how about 47% of carbon emissions come from highway and mobile forces

And of course, when it comes to transit oriented development, a key selling point that advocates have taken up, Walton said those opportunities were far greater with light rail.

Walton also showed a poll of 263 respondents, who when surveyed said 63% supported light rail, 20% BRT, and 20% expanded bus service.  "When you look at air quality benefits, opportunities for land use and economic development, support from agency supporters, and consistencies with local and regional plans, it's recommended that light rail be used."

But that led to some dissent on the HART Board when the issue to approve rail come for a vote.  Board member Steven Polzin queried Walton about a lack of analytical data, such as ridership or land costs, to justify why HART should go for light rail and not BRT as its preferred mode of transportation, with such a huge financial discrepancy in BRT's favor - to the tune of a billion dollars.

Mentioning the large cost differential, Polzin said that "we need to build a much stronger case to justify and support a decision that seems to be driven by a lot of intangibles."

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