Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce urges referendum on rail tax
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10/30/09 Seán Kinane
WMNF Drive-Time News Friday | Listen to this entire show:

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Hillsborough County voters may get a chance to vote next November on a sales tax increase to pay for transit, including light rail. That chance may have gotten more likely late yesterday, when the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce urged Hillsborough County Commissioners to place the referendum on the 2010 ballot.

WMNF spoke with Bank of Tampa executive vice president Henry Gonzalez, who is chair of the Chamber.

Henry Gonzalez: “We had voted unanimously in a past board meeting to be supportive of the points set forth by the Tampa Bay Partnership. I believe that was our September board meeting. In that document, it was supportive of a light rail plan that took into a account a regional approach, meaning one that ensured that, knowing that Hillsborough County would probably have to lead the way, that it would fit into the regional plans of our surrounding counties. We’ve been supportive of that plan since then.”

“So our meeting with the county commissioners was simply to encourage them and let them know that we voted for that unanimously and that we really thought they should support it as well.”

WMNF: "And part of that proposal is placing a referendum on next November’s ballot which would increase the sales tax by up to a penny. Is that right?"

Gonzalez: “Correct.”

WMNF: Some people might see a little bit of a contradiction between a Chamber of Commerce, a business group asking for a referendum to increase the sales tax. How would you explain that?"

Gonzalez: “Well, I don’t see it as a contradiction, because in business you often expend money to invest in future growth. I think that’s what we’re doing in this case. In supporting a one cent sales tax, we are hoping that it’s invested in a system that will help our region grow, primarily for two reasons.

“The typical rider who uses the system on a daily basis would no longer have as much cost as using a vehicle—whether it be gas, maintenance, taxes, insurance, etc.—so that’s a benefit to them, even though they might be paying a sales tax for that. I mean, even though they might be paying a tax, it’s offset by their cost for their vehicle.

“Those people that would continue to use their vehicle in a like manner that they do so now, would see a lower cost of operating that vehicle, because the traffic should be reduced. In addition, a one cent sales tax to help build this system and operate it, is a wonderful job creation method and really should help alleviate some of the up to 12 percent unemployment we have in our community.”

WMNF: What will the chamber be doing to encourage either the commission or the public to support this one cent sales tax?"

Gonzalez: “We will be acting as an educator and a convener, if you will. We’ve already begun doing an education process with our membership, especially our board. This summer we held five different one-hour meetings, bringing in all the various representatives of the groups trying to get the rail plan started. That was a wonderful experience. We had, probably over the course of the five meetings, probably several hundred people attend those events where they learned what the NPO’s part of this was, what TBARTA’s part of this was, what HART’s part of this was. So that would be the first thing.

“The second thing is to be a convener. We are helping to organize a meeting on Monday, out at the Crowne Plaza in Sabal Park. The Mayor of Charlotte is coming in to speak to us, so we are helping to convene that meeting so people can learn about what Charlotte’s experience has been over the last few years in getting their rail up and started. You may or may not know this, but they actually had a problem where they got the rail started, the first leg done, and there was an attempt to put a ballot initiative back on the ballot to stop it in its tracks. We learned a great deal from that.

“We want to make sure that once the thing gets started we want to continue to educate the public and our membership that this is just the beginning, and that there’s a long road here, before we build out a system.

“This meeting on Monday is being held in conjunction with the Brandon Chamber and the Tampa Bay Partnership. We would act as a convener in that realm and as an educator to our business clients.”

Stay tuned for WMNF’s coverage of that transportation forum during the Evening News next week.

Tampa Chamber of Commerce

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