CSX’s offer finally opens the door to commuter rail in Florida’s Tampa Bay area

October 4, 2015

There are 97 miles of railroad track connecting the downtowns of Clearwater, St. Petersburg and Tampa. The steel grating links Tampa International Airport to the University of South Florida, stretches across four counties and reaches as far north as Brooksville.

Freight trains run on those tracks now. But they could, one day, form the spine of a passenger rail system that would finally connect Tampa Bay — and ease the region’s dependence on roads.Website Insert Perfect Answer copy

This is no pie-in-the-sky scenario. It’s an idea gaining sudden momentum because railroad giant CSX Corp. is shopping around two segments of its Tampa Bay routes.

There is precedent in Miami and Orlando for converting freight lines to commuter rail. And no, it’s not light rail. It doesn’t require building brand-new rail infrastructure on top of existing development.

That doesn’t mean commuter rail is any more feasible than light rail — or cheaper. But now, it’s an option.

“There’s no question in my mind that there’s going to be a very serious conversation about it,” said former Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe, one of the bay area’s most vocal transit advocates.

“It’s there, it’s underutilized, and it connects important points. It’s very viable.”

• • •

For three decades now, local leaders have batted about the idea of converting freight rail to a passenger service.

The bay area once had a Tampa Bay Commuter Rail Authority that pushed the concept in the 1990s but struggled to drum up support or funding. The agency folded soon after.

In this decade, the Greenlight Pinellas effort considered incorporating the CSX tracks into its plan, then settled on a separate light rail system.

That plan was rejected by Pinellas voters last year. Hills­borough voters did the same to a 2010 referendum that also included light rail.

Transit proponents have long coveted the tracks. But one question always stood in the way: Was CSX open to a deal?

It is now. At last month’s meeting of the Tampa Bay Transportation Management Area Leadership Group, a gathering of the region’s transportation planners, CSX said it’s willing to sell two lines.

One of the rail lines offered by CSX is the “Clearwater line.” It stretches from downtown St. Petersburg, climbs northwest through Pinellas County to downtown Clearwater, veers to Oldsmar, then runs east past Tampa International Airport and ends near downtown Tampa, in Ybor City.

The second route is the “Brooksville line.” It starts in Tampa, juts north from the first line, passes by USF, cuts through Land O’Lakes in Pasco County and finishes in central Hernando County, near Brooksville.

Urged by local leaders, CSX analyzed its lines and found that those two routes carried minimal freight traffic and could be used for passenger rail.

Read the full story from Tampa Bay Times staff writer Caitlin Johnston by clicking here.


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