Local leaders look ahead at what Brightline expansion can mean for Tampa, Ybor

 Interstate 4 is overwhelmed.

The state plans a $2 billion expansion. But it’s hard to imagine handling Florida’s ever-increasing traffic on a roadway connecting two metro areas that the U.S. Census Bureau says have the fourth and fifth largest population increases in the country from 2022-23.

It’s also hard to imagine zipping from Tampa to Orlando at 125 miles an hour. But if the expectations of Tampa business and political leaders come true, a sleek Brightline passenger train will be transporting people quickly and in style along the corridor between the east and westbound lanes of I-4 by the end of the decade.

“I did not think it was possible to be any more excited about Brightline coming to Tampa until I rode it from Miami to Orlando a few months ago,’’ Tampa Mayor Jane Castor says in a statement emailed to 83 Degrees.

“It is spectacular and will be a huge benefit to businesses, tourists, and residents, connecting South Florida and Orlando to America’s greatest city,’’ she says. “Brightline will build a station in Ybor City close to the TECO Streetcar. Based on what we saw in West Palm Beach, which has a similar station to what Tampa’s will be, it will supercharge economic development around that transportation hub. I am hopeful we have passengers traveling on Brightline between Tampa and Orlando in five years.’’

A boost for redevelopment, transportation options

In a trip facilitated by the Tampa Bay Partnership, dozens of Tampa and Hillsborough elected officials and business leaders rode the private passenger rail last November, introducing them to the service to rally support for extending the route from Orlando to Tampa.
Ybor City developer Darryl Shaw toured the Miami station after it first opened in 2018. 

“And it was fascinating,” Shaw says. “Once Brightline landed in a spot, in a station, other modalities dovetailed into the Brightline station.’’
Shaw, the developer of the 50-acre Gas Worx project of residences, retail and offices between Ybor City and the Channel District, expects that will happen if Brightline arrives in Tampa.

“I think we’ll see the streetcar tie into it, hopefully eventually some sort of light rail, hopefully we’ll see the bus system interconnect and then ride-share as well,’’ he says. “So it really is an anchor for transit modalities other than cars. So once they land, I think you’ll see efforts over the next subsequent years to connect in, which Tampa desperately needs.’’

It would also speed up development around it, he says.

“I think it would add another stamp of legitimacy or credibility to Ybor,” Shaw says. “And as Ybor evolves into a more residential district, a business district, it evolves away from just being an entertainment district. I think it will further cement people’s desire to be near Brightline and therefore accelerate both office and residential components of the development.’’

Bob Rohrlack, president of the Tampa Chamber of Commerce, says it has become obvious that the need for multi-modal transportation options throughout the Tampa Bay area has become desperate. The failure of the legislature to bring back to Hillsborough County all of the nearly $600 million collected in a short-lived transportation tax makes the problem all the more obvious, he says.

“So having Brightline here that can connect us to other parts of the state is a significant step in the right direction,” Rohrlack says.

Rohrlack says the chamber has passed a policy supporting Brightline and the expansion of rail and multi-model transportation choices in the region.

“That’s why we supported the transportation tax coming in. We supported the ferry. All of these options are necessary to have a vibrant economy,’’ he says.

Government and business leaders from Tampa Bay toured Brightline's West Palm Beach station in late 2023.Rohrlack was on the November trip Mayor Castor took on Brightline and was also impressed by the vibrant economic hub springing up around it. At the West Palm Beach station, Rohrlack asked where the workforce housing was and learned it was in varied directions within walking distance of the station.

“So being able to have people who can have housing they can afford, and then a choice for transportation by hopefully having a terminal, will spur more mobile options to it, whether it be bus, light rail,’’ he says.

“How do we connect all this activity, which is what you see in vibrant, thriving
economies, how they have connected all of that?” Rohrlack says. "We desperately need to catch up. We are grossly behind here in Tampa Bay.’’

Tying into the local transportation network

Johnny Wong, executive director of the Hillsborough Transportation Planning Organization, an arm of Plan Hillsborough, says public transportation connecting the Brightline station in Ybor to key destinations in the Tampa Bay area is part of an overall study the staff plans to undertake. He says plans to launch the study are included in a larger program of planning projects going to the Transportation Planning Organization Board for approval in May.

“The way we would approach that is first to look at what are the existing modal options in Ybor,” Wong says. “When you look at that, the key asset of course is the streetcar. So I imagine that streetcar would be able to provide a service to connect folks to a lot of the key destinations that folks might be seeking to access. The streetcar runs from Ybor City to downtown. It covers Water Street and takes you out to the convention center. There, there’s four key destinations that could be served by just the streetcar.’’

There are plans to extend the streetcar north to Tampa Heights, he says, which would unlock different options for travelers.

“The streetcar, that’s a key asset. We know that some of the passengers may be relying on bus service or ride-share, the last if they want to access the airport,’’ Wong says. “So those would be two options that we would explore, as well as longer distance service.’’

The study would involve key stakeholders, including the City of Tampa and Hillsborough Area Rapid Transit, which runs the buses and streetcar.

“Pinellas County would have to be involved because PSTA (Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority) operates a lot of those cross-county routes,’’ Wong says.

Property and business owners in Ybor City and beyond would also be involved.

“So we’re going to be looking at a pretty big study," Wong says.

Looking ahead

Brightline passengers sit in “hand-stitched’’ 19-inch wide leather seats; 21-inch in first class. They can tap into the free WiFi, and USB outlets are available at every seat. First class includes free beverages and snacks, which are available for purchase by other passengers.

Brightline’s fares vary with demand. For example, the price for a standard one-wayBrightline expanded service to Orlando in September 2023. The private high speed rail company is eyeing Tampa and a station in the Ybor City area for its next expansion. ticket from Orlando to Miami on April 5 is $49 at 4:50 a.m. and jumps to $112 at 8:50 a.m. First-class one-way tickets are $129 at 4:50 a.m. and $169 at 11:50 a.m.
Brightline has reported that the Miami to Orlando project cost $6 billion. The company has not responded to emails asking about the estimated cost and status of funding for the Orlando to Tampa route.

In December, the Florida Department of Transportation received $500,000 from the federal government to study the construction of the rail corridor. In 2022, Brightline received a federal grant of $15.9 million for a preliminary engineering study of the corridor. Rohrlack says that, along with partnering with government, they’ve had some investment from the private sector.

Will it happen?

“That I don’t know,’’ Shaw says. “I think there’s a lot of constituencies that would like to see it come to Tampa, so I there’s a lot of support for it, but they will need the funding to do so and I don’t think that’s been cemented yet.’’

It’s a promising sign, he adds, that Brightline was able to get $3 billion in federal funds to help build the $12 billion line from Las Vegas to Los Angeles, which the company wants to complete in time for the 2028 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.

One of the arguments against Brightline, Rohrlack notes, is that it does not pay for itself. In a quarterly report released in December, Brightline reported a loss of $192 million from Jan. 1 to Sept. 30 last year. However, the company reported a ridership increase of 67 percent from 2022 to 2023.

“Public transportation is not self-supportive. Our roads are paid for through taxes, buses are supported with taxes, aviation is supported through taxes,’’ Rohrlack says.

But, he adds, “We can’t continue to be solely a roads-dependent society.’’

For more information, go to Brightline.
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Read more articles by Philip Morgan.

Philip Morgan is a freelance writer living in St. Petersburg. He is an award-winning reporter who has covered news in the Tampa Bay area for more than 50 years. Phil grew up in Miami and graduated from the University of Florida with a degree in journalism. He joined the Lakeland Ledger, where he covered police and city government. He spent 36 years as a reporter for the former Tampa Tribune. During his time at the Tribune, he covered welfare and courts and did investigative reporting before spending 30 years as a feature writer. He worked as a reporter for the Tampa Bay Times for 12 years. He loves writing stories about interesting people, places and issues.