Readers may recall when the PBS NewsHour was in Tampa earlier this year, with Gwen Ifill, Judy Woodruff and the whole gang doing a series of reports about what's going on in the political world in the Tampa Bay area.
Included in those reports was a substantial piece about rail - both light and high speed rail, as both have become major topics in the region this year. What was a bit striking to this reporter was seeing St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster(adorned with a Tampa Bay Rays jersey)discussing high speed rail, and saying that he could only support it it were to include his city in the mix.
Don't remember that? We wrote about it at the time, with this money quote from Foster:
BILL FOSTER ,R, mayor of Saint Petersburg, Fla.: I will say, if it stops in Tampa, then its a terrible waste of money, and I will fight like the dickens to make sure it never happens. But if it includes the Saint Pete component, the ability to move people at high speeds efficiently, I think, is important for our for our region.
It seemed a bit incongruous at the time, since it's been pretty well established that construction on the Tampa-Orlando line is pretty much set in stone, but nobody else seemed to raise an eyebrow.
Well, now Foster is making that point clear, and now saying he'll oppose light rail efforts in Pinellas County if funding isn't included to bring high speed rail to St. Petersburg.
Mike Van Sickler reports in Saturday's St. Pete Times that the Mayor was able to persuade the St. Pete City Council on Thursday night to pass a resolution to get high speed rail officials to include Pinellas County into the first link of funding.
"I want a commitment that the powers that be recognize the importance of a Pinellas County connection and that this will be a priority with them," Foster said. "My fear is without a commitment now, we'll all be competing for the same transportation dollars later on. Then they would just end up expanding in Hillsborough because that's where the rail is."
Foster is not the first locally elected official in the Bay area to inquire about having high speed rail authorities deviating a bit from that Tampa-Orlando line (with three stops in between).
Earlier this summer Tampa City Councilwoman Mary Mulhern got her colleagues in the City Council pass a resolution requesting that the Florida Rail Enterprise, the official statewide group responsible for constructing the project in Florida, to look for funding to include having that line veer off and go to Tampa International Airport.
But Florida Rail Enterprise director Kevin Thibault told Mulhern at a Council meeting that it was too late in the process to look for those funds, and Hillsborough County Metropolitan Planning Organization head Ray Chiaramonte also dismissed the idea, and said the same thing about Pinellas County at the time. Chiaramonte claims that structurally that Pinellas wouldn't work as a high speed rail line, but would be a natural link to a light rail system.
All eyes in Tampa and St. Pete are of course, on the one cent transit tax that Hillsborough voters will consider in November that would begin the construction of the first leg of a light rail system. Pinellas officials have been holding more meetings about following suit with their own referendum, but will wait to see what happens in Hillsborough.
If voters reject the ballot measure in Hillsborough, everything would be delayed.
But Foster is now playing hardball, saying that even if the measure is approved, he won't back efforts to support it in St. Pete. Of course, it's up to Pinellas County Commissioners to put a measure on the ballot on a transit tax, not the mayor of St. Pete, but in the name of regionalism and everything else that supporters like Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio are working on, it would be a blow if Foster and the St. Pete City Council was hostile to being a part of the light rail system efforts, which officials hope will ultimately wind its way through several Bay area counties.