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The Best that we could be

Tampa Bay’s transportation system is in need of an upgrade.

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The Best Thing About Tampa Bay is our light rail system. Built mostly with government money, it has almost singlehandedly 1) kept the Rays from leaving St. Pete by dropping off fans from near and far close to the gates, like almost all major league parks; 2) cut down on the horrific traffic between the cities at rush hour; 3) extended our life spans by easing the stress of trips to the airport; 4) helped keep our air clean by lessening our dependence on oil, 5) solved our downtown parking problem, and 6) given us safer, cheaper, more dependable and aesthetically pleasing transportation.

Oh, sorry, that’s right, we don’t have one. Hillsborough residents voted down a sales tax increase that would have paid for a light-rail system in 2010; Pinellas County leaders plan to have a comprehensive transportation package, including a tax increase for rail, on the 2014 ballot.

Living in Amherst, MA, for one summer, Jeanne and I were pleased to learn that Emily Dickinson’s father, Edward, was the driving force in bringing that new invention, the railroad, to the little town of Amherst in 1853; now part of Amtrak, it connects Amherst to all the major cities surrounding it. Dickinson Street and Railroad Street run parallel to each other, running into College Street, where we lived, so it was easy to imagine Emily (1830-1886) listening to the trains, and writing, as one chugged by …

… Around a Pile of Mountains —
And supercilious peer
In Shanties — by the sides of Roads —
And then a Quarry pare …

Once upon a time, before being undone by mismanagement, buses and Big Oil, a railroad/trolley combination in St. Petersburg, with a charming Victorian station along our own Railroad Avenue, led directly to the Wharf, which became the Pier, which is about to become … well, who knows? You could go all over St. Pete by trolley, 15 rides for $1! Years ago, one of our boys found a heavy iron spike in our back yard, which borders on 24th Avenue South. The boys were used to finding clusters of shells from an old Spanish fort that once was built below here — but what was this spike from? Some old-timers in our neighborhood (we arrived in 1966) told us it was from the old trolley line — the last one torn up in 1949 — which used to end right behind our house.

In Neuchâtel, Switzerland (population c. 35,000), the trolley was right below our house (we had to cross the tracks to get to the lake). We could take the trolley downtown, the bus to the University, or the train to Geneva, Paris, Heidelberg, anywhere in Europe. The city’s perched on the slope of the Jura Mountains, so the train station is above, with a view of Neuchâtel’s rooftops, the lake below, and the Alps on the other side of the lake. It’s a charming but steep walk down, and the children loved it. If we had luggage we took the trolley. Buses rolled through for the surrounding villages. What you don’t need is a car.

The year we lived there, Henry Genz, a distinguished Eckerd college French professor (Neuchâtel is French-speaking) stopped by for a surprise visit, but we were out of town. He left a note saying he was sorry he missed us, but had enjoyed the best trout he’d ever eaten in the train station’s café. This was no accident: across Europe and in parts of America, you’ll find some of the best restaurants in or right by the train stations.

Light rail and trolleys make a city better, and the Worst Thing About Tampa Bay is we don’t have it. By the time our leaders get around to building it, it will take three times longer and cost 10 times more (we seem to be working on a similar strategy with our Pier). Tampa Bay’s a great area, but Emily Dickinson would feel sorry for us, without this iron horse galloping through our neighborhoods.

Above quote is from #585 in The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson (Little, Brown & Co.).

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