County transit officials to tread lightly on rail

11/15/10 Kate Bradshaw
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In the wake of the Hillsborough transit referendum getting shot down in the polls, officials are grappling with the question of what to do next. Members of the county’s transportation agency are opting to tread lightly as they look for new ways to go forward on transit.

Facing the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Board this morning, transportation advocate Pierre Mathurin says he has a regret.

"I wish that I would have done more to encourage people to vote for countywide transportation."

Voters roundly rejected a ballot measure that would have raised the sales tax by a penny in order to fund a sweeping revamp of the way people get around. It would have included light rail, amped-up bus service, road projects, and more. Mathurin says he’s afraid the GOP supermajority in the state legislature might pull funding from HART, thus compromising bus service.

"It is my opinion that service will be cut after October 1, 2011 maybe by 10 percent and perhaps as much as 20 percent if the state of Florida reduces their funding. Such reductions will mean that the HART of the near future will be more like what HART used to be in 2004. Unfortunately this will be more troubling if gas prices rise to what they were in 2007-2008."

A majority of voters rejected the sales tax increase, but HART planners aren’t exactly stopping dead in their tracks. They’ve got years of data under their belts, which were to culminate in the official adoption of a document called an alternatives analysis. The analysis makes recommendations on which transit modes should go where, and is a requirement as HART bids for federal matching funds.

"The decision two weeks ago was not fatal to the project."

That’s Jeff Boothe, a lawyer specializing in transit at the DC firm Holland and Knight. He says with Democrats still in control of the Senate and the executive branch, funding for transit won’t be going anywhere. Boothe says there’s still time to get federal New Start matching funds for the project, which is expected to cost billions and span decades, but the agency needs to figure out where it’ll raise its share of the money.

"You just have to be able to identify the 50 percent of the non-federal monies are committed in order to get into final design. So, we've not lost any time when it comes to the New Start program."

Some officials are leaning toward another ballot initiative in 2012, when voters have cooled off from their anti-tax rage. Today Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio said she wants to keep pushing for the sales tax increase. HART chief planner Mary Shavalier says another referendum is possible, but whatever happens, nailing down funding for the projects is crucial.

"Well, we'll have to talk internally but what other funding measures are sources are available or ... the sales tax. And talk with some of our partners about what the plan would be trying to go forward and secure some other type of funding."

After going through some of details in the alternatives analysis – and stressing the need for funding - Shavalier asks the board to support HART moving forward to develop transit alternatives for Hillsborough County.

"Recognize the continuing need to address traffic and expand mobility options in Hillsborough County. Recognize the value of the investment that is made so far in that need to complete this study to the end and then reaffirming that need to complete this alternative study, select a locally preferred alternative and continue efforts to try to implement the 'starting line' for light rail in the county."

The board is still eager to pursue light rail with or without the help of a sales tax increase. But today they’re hesitant to make any bold moves. Instead of wholeheartedly embracing a transit plan that has a number of unknowns left to be hashed out, they decide to tread lightly. Board member and County Commissioner Mark Sharpe, a Republican who strongly supported the initiative, says too much forward motion would make it appear as though the board didn’t listen to voters.

"My sense is that before we go charging forward as if we are just tone deaf to what occurred that we would need to at least have a public conversation to begin to discuss what and why we are doing the things that you're recommending that we do. Why? How it all fits in? I would prefer far more time."

HART board member David Mechanik says voters’ rejection of the referendum reflects a broader public sentiment, and because of that, the board should proceed with caution.

"It's not just the message of local voters, there's a much broader state and national message that we need to absorb in terms of what we do going forward."

Board member Fran Davin says that at the same time, the board needs to recognize all that work and resources that have already been put into the alternatives analysis.

"I would hate to think that we've put all of this money and all of this effort and study, and then we just propose to drop it. I would hope that what we would do, is we need to reflect more."

She reminds the board that no matter what level of government funds transit, it’s all coming from the same place.

County Commissioner Mark Sharpe says not everyone who voted down the sales tax boost is against rail, but merely against the means by which the new system would be implemented.

"I've come across the sentiment that it was a good idea but maybe we should have taken smaller steps to get there. It's a good idea but we can't afford it now. Those are the types of things that you hear and I respect that. I was prepared, I sat through a lot of meetings and task force committee discussions and I came to the conclusion that we needed to take this step, but I'm one person. There's 1.2 million people who live in our community so, what we've got to have is a community-wide discussion in which we bring them in and my concern really was that we were going to succeed with 52 per cent. And I always felt that 52 per cent would not be enough to get the community to rally around it."

He says pursuing rail this close after nearly 60 percent of Hillsborough voters rejected the ballot initiative wouldn’t help win the hearts and minds of county voters.

But even as light rail looks to be on hold in Hillsborough County, a high-speed rail line that would connect Orlando to Tampa appears to be on track. This, despite fears that the GOP might cut funding projects like the rail line, which uses federal stimulus money.

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Last stop... everybody off...

Wait a minute… you mean funding for urban bus public transportation was tied into the light rail ballot??? Whooda thunk that a 4-mpg diesel fuel guzzler would get the ax by voting down something a little more fuel efficient??? Now there’s your carbon footprint up the wazoo…