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

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."