Hillsborough County Commissioners will accelerate transit talks

03/20/13 Janelle Irwin
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Hillsborough County Commissioners unanimously agreed to start planning how to improve transit during a meeting today in downtown. Despite more than a dozen speakers who were in favor of multi-modal transit, Commissioner Victor Crist said his vote doesn't necessarily mean he will support rail.

“I’m going to be judging them solely on the ROI – the return on investment. I’m going to be looking at whether or not it remained an objective process. I’m going to be scrutinizing it very closely from a fiscal conservative perspective.”

The vote allows county staff to negotiate a contract with planners to facilitate workshops with the goal of coming up with a list of priorities. That could include improved bus service, road improvements or additional bike and pedestrian paths. But the possibility that strikes the most controversy is rail. During the morning’s public comment session, five people spoke against the concept of rail including Karen Jaroch, a Hillsborough Area Transit Authority board member. They wore pinned on signs that said COST in bold red letters.

“We need to fix our deficient roads. We need to be smart about it with our transportation strategy as one that deals with movement of people and freight and it should not be one about development.”

Thirteen people spoke in favor of at least talking about more transit options including rail. More were waiting, but the morning public comment was cut after 45 minutes. The pro-transit bunch was identified by blue stickers that said “try transit.” The group filled the entire back half of the board room. Tom Kennedy said he works for a large real estate company and countered the argument that expanded transit isn’t cost effective.

“In terms of money, which I prefer to start with, I work with tech companies. One of the biggest problems tech companies have is attracting employees. Without employees they cannot expand and grow. This is really an issue about economic development. Transit helps attract workers.”

Another supporter, Arnold Buckley, moved to Tampa with his wife after college to be near family. But he said it was hard to convince his wife to live in an area that didn’t have wide transit options.

“Because, literally, there was no other transportation and it may sound odd, but having many choices improves quality of life. My wife couldn’t even take it for a while and moved to Chicago simply because they had an effective transportation system.”

Ken Roberts with the group Citizens Organized for Sound Transportation looked back to the failed 2010 transit referendum where voters rejected a penny sales tax that would have funded improvements. He said after that vote a survey was done.

“The citizens of the county cited transportation as an issue, but their top priority was roads and bridges. Rail as a solution was way down the list.”

But the support for expanding transit discussions has garnered some bipartisan support in Hillsborough. Both the Tampa Bay Young Republicans and the Hillsborough County Young Democrats joined forces to urge the county commission to move toward multi-modal transportation. Anibal Cabrera is with the Young Republicans.

“It is uneconomical for me living in North Hillsborough County to even try to take a bus and go into the city center. It doesn’t make any sense to me. I have to spend three to four hours just going transit when it takes me a half an hour just by car. I want to option. I’m a young professional. I choose to live in Tampa. I choose to work in Tampa. I want to raise my children; I want to raise my family in Tampa. But if we do not have the options in transportation, what is that giving me? I don’t want more highways, that just breaks up neighborhoods. I don’t want more buses, that just fills up the roads even more.”

And Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe, a Republican, brought the issue before the board. He said transportation has become one of the county’s biggest problems.

“When the GPS group TomTom comes out and says we have the fifth worst congestion in North America – we can debate it and dispute it, but there it sits – the fifth worst. When Forbes magazine – I’m not talking about Bloomberg, the liberal who wants to take away your big Slurpee drink, but I’m talking about Forbes the conservative and their magazine says we’re dead last – 60th out of 60 metros for commuters. That’s a problem. We rank second worst for pedestrian fatalities and the safety of bicyclists.

Residents in Pinellas County will be faced with a decision on transit in 2014 when a penny sales tax referendum will be on their ballot. The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority has already laid out a preliminary plan to use those funds if approved by voters that includes both expanded bus service and rail options that would connect St. Pete to Clearwater and possibly to Tampa.

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