PBS Reporter Grills Tampa Transit Leaders

04/14/10 Kate Bradshaw
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At the University of Tampa yesterday Tampa transit leaders heard some of the toughest questions yet on their proposed transit overhaul, and they weren’t coming from a tax-bashing tea partier. They came from PBS Newshour’s Paul Solman, who was there as part of a town hall series in Tampa Bay this week. He challenged the assertion that Tampa Bay might enjoy the same five hundred percent return other cities have after investing in rail. Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio responded.

The meeting was just ahead of the Hillsborough Board of County Commissioners’ final transit workshop, which may bring them one step closer to getting the penny transit tax on this year’s ballot. Iorio said that investing in things like light rail and expanded bus service is a much smarter option than perpetually widening Tampa Bay’s roads.

Solman noted that he is from Boston, home to the notorious Big Dig. He asked how likely voters were to approve the measure on November’s Ballot. Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority, or HART, president David Armijo brought up another city that passed a transit tax just last week after voting it down two years earlier. Iorio chimed in with an even rosier take.

Hillsborough community activist Gerald White, who also served on the panel, said the initiative has the support of a key demographic.

Joking that the panel consisted of six pro-transit leaders and was thus unbalanced, Solman said he had to be tough. He asked the mayor if expanding transit, like widening roads, would still mean more traffic as the population continues to grow, and the mayor took the opportunity to dish it right back.

But then members of the public got up. One questioner asked how Tampa Bay can be a competitive tourist destination if the high speed rail line slated to run between Tampa and Orlando doesn’t stop at Tampa International Airport. Don Skelton, one of the panelists, represents Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco, Hernando and Citrus Counties at the Florida Department of Transportation. He said that providing ways to get to local attractions is a bigger issue.

One attendee asked whether funding transit with a sales tax would disproportionately affect the poor. Iorio said that the sales tax, which brings in an average of two hundred million dollars a year, is the most dependable source of tax revenue out there.

The board members may have heard tough questions at the meeting, but HART president David Armijo said the greatest challenge lies ahead. That’s getting the message out about the proposed transit overhaul ahead of the November election.

The Spotlight City Series wraps up its Florida visit with an hour-long Town Hall meeting airing on WEDU-TV Friday, April 16 at 9:30 p.m. PBS Newshour Senior correspondent Judy Woodruff will moderate a discussion on health care, the economy, unemployment and other issues that affect local citizens.

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