Tampa Bay area transit officials and business leaders hope to resuscitate rail
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11/17/10 Kate Bradshaw
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Looking to raise rail from the ashes of the November Second vote, Tampa Bay area transit leaders met at the Straz Center this morning to reflect on what they’ve learned. They discussed possible reasons the penny transit tax withered on Hillsborough’s ballot, and speculated possible strategies for its future success.

Officials say there’s no silver bullet that nails the reason Hillsborough County voters didn’t buy into funding rail, bus and road improvements with a penny from every dollar they spend. Ronnie Duncan, chair of the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority (TBARTA) board says voters didn’t have a clear enough picture of what they would have been paying for.

"It's hard for me to sell you on something when I can't '...' and 'here's a bag, and I want to sell you this bag, and I want you to give me $50 bucks for it, but I can't quite tell you what's in the bag.' And what the voter's concerned about it is that I tell you what's in the bag, I tell you that it's got a tube of toothpaste in there and you get home, and you open the bag up, and you've already given me $50 bucks and oh, by the way, it's not toothpaste. It's deodorant."

Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe is a Republican who put his reelection on the line by supporting the transit tax referendum – an idea most Republicans hated. He says transit advocates can’t ignore the growing mistrust of government, especially when it comes to taxes.

"We will do ourselves and the voters a great disservice if we ignore what I believe is a very strong and growing sentiment in the nation with regards to spending."

Sharpe adds that the overload of information – not all of it true – further doomed the referendum. TBARTA Board chair Ronnie Duncan says the fact that a proposed high speed rail project, funded largely by federal stimulus dollars, was unveiled alongside the county transit tax was probably confusing to many voters.

"They thought that because the federal government has already given us $1.25 billion plus another 800 million for high speed rail, that we don't need...we already got our money. We don't need to be taxed anymore. Obviously they're two different issues but that's because I'm in the weeds on this everyday. The fact is that many people, they don't get it. They didn't get it."

Almost 60 percent of Hillsborough voters rejected the sales tax increase that would have funded the overhaul. Still, transit advocates are convinced that voters want newer, greener ways to get around – they just aren’t sure the option presented to them was the best way to do it. Duncan says a well-rounded transit system would be an economic boon to the Tampa Bay area.

"I don't think there can be any question that we're at a competitive disadvantage without a well-developed public transit system, including light rail, for many reasons. For one thing 25-30 other metropolitan areas like ours have it, and we don't. And when businesses are looking for a place to move or where they're thinking about staying, they look at the areas investment in infrastructure, our committment to progress, our committment to business, giving them the support they need to move their people, to move their business services."

Former Hillsborough County Commissioner Ed Turanchik, who is currently running for Tampa mayor, was in the audience this morning. An avid supporter of transit, he says he thinks the measure failed because it wasn’t regional and focused too heavily on light rail.

"Voters were right to say no. It was too much tax and too expensive of a plan, and it just has to take a step back and rethink it. It needs to be more expansive. I think we need a regional, simple and affordable bus and rail transit plan. And the reason this plan was so expensive is it was so reliant on light rail which is turning out to be as expensive as highways."

The Pinellas County Transit Task Force said Monday it may seek a referendum on a transit sales tax over the multi-county region in the next few years. But Commissioner Mark Sharpe says he agrees that tackling transit should be a region-wide endeavor, but that winning hearts and minds of voters needs to be done at the local level.

The small counties will say 'why do I want to build a rail system that I'm never going to see, that's going to go somewhere else'. And when voters in the eastern part of our own county said 'wait a minute', because the anti-rail folks were very effective at making this a 'this a tax for rail in Tampa.' And they are the ones that really drilled down it's us versus them which I've never bought into. But that was the case they made effectively."

For now, Hillsborough transit leaders are laying low. On Monday, Hillsborough Area Regional Transit, or (HART), board members agreed to cool off on any forward motion for its countywide transit plan in order to figure out what the voters want. But HART Board chair Ron Govin says a number of potential transit plan options have come to light in the couple of weeks since voters turned down the transit tax.

"We've had some great communications with the airport and there's a unique opportunity there where we could cross through their property and perhaps build a demonstration line that would connect to downtown, and it would be at a lower expense."

The Tampa Bay Area Regional Transit Authority, meanwhile, will have its monthly board meeting Friday morning. TBARTA chair Ronnie Duncan says the board will discuss some potential new partnerships that may add up to a game changer when it comes to the organization’s regional transit plan. Cities that have had transit tax referenda fail before passing include Austin, Texas and Phoenix.

Previous WMNF coverage of penny transit tax

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HART

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paper or plastic?

It's not surprising that people can't look at an issue without filtering it through their own agenda, but the transit 'leaders' are losing points for obstinacy, in my opinion. Mr. Duncan says voters didn't have a clear picture, that we thought we were buying a pig in a poke, or a paper bag or something. Or we didn't get it because we were confused by the High Speed Rail project that President Obama's stimulus plan put on a fast track. So to speak. Mr. Turanchik says it relied too heavily on light rail, he's got some other kind of rail in mind, commuter rail, like that's different somehow. The idea of rail in Hillsborough begs the question, where's it going and why is it going there? USF? You've got to be kidding. I can understand Mr. Sharpe's frustration, however. This is a regional issue that could have the potential to improve economic conditions for Hillsborough, specifically Tampa, and Pinellas County as well. The problem? You've got Republicans in charge of Tallahassee and this kind of a problem needs a greater jurisdiction than the current list of parties involved. It makes sense to connect Pinellas and Tampa, especially with the high speed rail project in place. So we have some hope with Mr. Govin's news of a demonstration line to the airport. But honestly, it's becoming apparent that Tampa should be running their own operations at this point. You haven't been able to get Brandon to support their own bus route, putting a rail line out there would be a waste of money. New Tampa? Why? For the convenience of a few voters who've never ridden a bus in their life? There are good reasons to build some rail along the Pinellas Gulf Coast, with probably some future stops up to the Panhandle and down to Ft. Myers. If our best hope of a stable economy that doesn't rely on housing construction, but goes back to tourism, then rail has a lot of potential for our stability, but getting Tallahassee to see that is going to be a long road to hoe.