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From: "James Dent" james DOT dent AT itochu DOT com
Date: Mon, 30 Apr 2001 14:25:06 -0400
Subject: Tampa, FL
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From the Tampa (FL) Tribune...

Apr 30, 2001

The little station that might

Photo caption:
The lone Amtrak agent who works at Union Station is often alone in the
pre-World War I lobby decorated with terrazzo floors. Officials hope there
are far busier times ahead for the station.

TAMPA - When Union Station reopened in May 1998 after years of neglect,
hopes surged for more trains and riders to kick the only active depot on
Florida's west coast back to life.
But 10 years after taxpayers began shelling out $3.9 million for the
makeover and two years after Tampa took ownership, the 1912 landmark at 601
Nebraska Ave. is all but deserted.

Officials imagine a future of high-speed rail, tourist trains whisking Walt
Disney World's rail-savvy European clientele to Tampa Bay beaches. They also
envision a possible 2012 Olympics transit hub and improvements in basic
Amtrak service.

It could take 10 more years to pull off, some say.

``You can't expect just because you shined up the building that it's all
going to happen,'' said Jim Shephard of Tampa Union Station Preservation &
Redevelopment Inc., the station's management. ``You can't lose faith and you
can't lose heart in these projects.''

Critics wonder.

``The last few times I've been up there, I've had to take the Amtrak bus to
the Orlando station,'' said Tampa passenger Donna Johnson.

Like an Edward Hopper still life, a lone Amtrak agent is often the only
human in the pre-World War I lobby. Its cool terrazzo floors gleam beneath
greenish skylights. A Pullman sleeper car from 1954 sits frozen in time on
the rusty tracks.

Just one train, Amtrak's Silver Palm, stops daily at 10:23 p.m. on its way
north through Ocala and Jacksonville to New York City and points between. It
chugs south again at 6:51 a.m. to Miami.

Better-timed connections mean enduring a two-hour Amtrak bus ride along
Interstate 4 to Orlando.

``Had I known that, I'd have saved my money for air fare,'' Johnson said.

She donated to restore the station in hopes more trains would roll to
Indiana where she visits her daughter.

Even Shephard, an ardent rail booster, concedes the station could be busier.
``Who wants to take a bus to Orlando and then get on a train?'' he asked.

Amtrak axed its Tampa-Orlando trains just before Union Station's 1998
facelift. The station had not been used at all since 1984.

``They haven't done the most intelligent things in the world,'' said
Fernando Noriega Jr., the city's development administrator.

AMTRAK SAYS THE NUMBER of passengers boarding or debarking in Tampa has
risen from 39,926 in 1998, to 40,961 in 1999, to 45,352 in 2000.

Doug Rutledge, a veteran Tampa station agent, said 50 to 70 passengers get
on or off at night. That number drops to about 35 in the morning.

Jeff Pender, 48, of Sarasota rode the train from Tampa to Savannah, Ga., one
night last week. ``Is it easier to get in my car? Yes. This is something
different,'' Pender said.

The Hermans of Parsipanny, N.J., were heading home after a
condominium-hunting trip. ``We have the time, and it's relaxing,'' said Fred
Herman, 59, a retiree. Sandy Herman said she fears flying. ``Two hours on a
plane is like two years for me.''

Outside the busy Northeast corridor between Boston and Washington, D.C.,
Amtrak largely targets leisure travelers in no hurry to reach their

Amtrak's strategy, hinging on federal subsidies, is to restore two trains a
day from Tampa to Orlando. But there is no timetable, said spokesman Kevin

Highway traffic, airport delays, fear of flying and Florida's bustling
tourism may all conspire to make Americans prefer trains again. ``But
there's no way of knowing,'' Johnson said.

If time is money, flying wins.

The lowest Tampa-New York Amtrak fare, available Monday and Tuesday, is $86.
It's a 23-hour trip, compared with start-up airline JetBlue, which zips
nonstop from Tampa to John F. Kennedy International Airport in 2 1/2 hours
for about the same price.

UNION STATION'S dormancy comes at a time when Florida's leaders are hustling
to meet a 2003 deadline for starting a bullet train that might run from
Tampa to Orlando and South Florida. Voters mandated this in a constitutional
referendum in November.

Florida's Department of Transportation forecasts high-speed rail ridership
between the amusement parks of Orlando and Tampa at 3.5 million passengers a
year, a dramatic hike from today's 45,000 rail riders.

Can it happen?

With road traffic worsening as Florida breaches 16 million residents, ``some
form of mass transit has to be developed,'' Noriega said.

But where? Some see Union Station as a Tampa terminus for a $1.4
billion-per-year fast train in the median of I-4 to Orlando. Others foresee
the terminus as Tampa International Airport and its 16 million annual users.

Either way, Tampa officials see the buffed-up Union Station as a link
between historic Ybor City, now a booming nightlife magnet, and the gritty
but gentrifying Channel District.

``When you see the big picture, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to see we
have the natural assets to make that happen,'' Noriega said.

If Tampa snags the 2012 Olympics, some see an Olympic Village yards away
from Union Station.

Kim Markham, who edits a Channel District newsletter, sees the station as a
stop for a planned downtown streetcar and a proposed light rail between the
Port of Tampa and TIA.

With two more cruise ship terminals planned nearby, and a possible explosion
of Cuba tourism when the Fidel Castro regime ends, Markham thinks the
station is poised to be a busy hub.

``Because it's already in public hands and because it's so strategically
located, over the next five to 10 years, it has to be an essential
element,'' Markham said.

Station boosters say vitality is right around the corner.

A $600,000 state grant will fund renovation of the 3,250-square-foot baggage
claim building, starting with bids in June. Once fixed up, officials hope to
lure a restaurant.

Another $25,000 is sought from the Las Vegas-based Great American Station
Foundation to study how to develop the site. That includes the 5-acre rail
yard, now owned by CSX Transportation Inc., a major freight company that
donated the station to Shephard's group and forgave a $735,000 loan.

Now, CSX wants $6 million for the rail yard, a stumbling block Shephard is
unsure how to overcome. ``We're probably going to have to ask the state to
assist us,'' he said.

FUNDS ARE ALSO being raised for a $300,000 museum with four old rail cars.
Besides running school tours, Shephard's nonprofit group wants to snag a
national exhibit on the career of A. Philip Randolph (1889-1979), a black
labor activist famed for unionizing rail porters.

For now, Tampa's Neighborhood Office occupies second-floor space.

But the view from the station steps may soon get better.

The derelict Union Hotel, boarded up for two decades across Nebraska Avenue
from the station, may become offices.

Tampa accountant Gil Hernandez and partners hope to rehabilitate the
6,500-square-foot building on Zack Street and put up a new office next door
for $2.5 million.

Optimism abounds.

``If we can get something real going into the train station, we're about a
decade away from one seamless swoop from downtown to Ybor,'' said Keith
Gibson, founder of KView, a Channel District software firm with 125

Gibson sees the ``gorgeous'' Italian Renaissance Revival-style train station
as integral to Ybor City and the Channel District, with funky urban housing
and green spaces going in someday to lure more people as residents.

``To me, it would bridge the old and the new,'' he said.


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