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     The Tampa Bay area needs some sort of rail transportation system if it is to serve residents and attract new business, Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard told a group of students and others Thursday (Feb. 4) at the Clearwater Campus of St. Petersburg College.
     Hibbard serves on the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transit Authority, a regional group that is working on plans for a regional rail transportation system.
     A regional rail service would employ a “spine-and-rib” design, feeding riders from more far-flung areas to the rail stations by buses. The finished rail service would ease pressure on the region’s highway system, could tie in to a proposed Tampa-to-Orlando high speed rail service, and would be a major asset in attracting new business to the region, Hibbard said.
     “We need it to attract jobs to this region – companies look for mass transit,” Hibbard said. “We are one of two top areas in the country that don’t have mass transit. Detroit is the other one.”
     High-speed rail service, much discussed over the years in Florida, got a shot in the arm recently when President Obama visited the state to announce his administration’s Stimulus package would fund a high-speed rail system between Tampa Bay and Orlando.
      Hibbard said that while the high-speed intercity system is important and desirable, it neither strengthens nor weakens the argument for a regional rail system. Such a system is needed, he said, whether it ties into a high-speed rail system or not.
     “I support mass transit because I want an alterative to the automobile,” he said.
     Hibbard said he had traveled to Japan to look at the rail systems of that country, and found them to be highly efficient. The trains in Japan, he said, “arrive within seconds of when they say they will arrive.”
     Hibbard acknowledged the high cost of a regional rail system – anywhere between $40 million and $65 million per mile. But he pointed out that highway construction costs are also high; the complex new interchange near the Tampa Airport, he said, cost about three-quarters of a billion dollars. Maintenance costs for rail systems are lower than maintenance costs for highways.
     About half of a new regional rail system could be paid for by the federal government, he said, and the local share might be funded by a one-cent increase in the sales tax. A significant portion of local sales taxes, he said, are paid through purchases made by tourists.
     An increase in the regional sales tax might cost local residents around $143 per household, but residents could realize significant savings that could offset the higher cost and more, he said.
     “What if you could do away with a second car?” Hibbard asked. “Everywhere rail has been initiated, ridership has exceeded what was anticipated.”
     Hibbard’s presentation was sponsored by Clearwater Matters, an ongoing forum that examines various issues of interest to Clearwater residents. Clearwater Matters was founded by faculty and administrators at the Clearwater campus.
     Audience members were encouraged to ask questions of Hibbard via their smart phones – questions were texted to him via Twitter or Facebook.

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