TBARTA: most residents want rail, but not to pay for it listen11/19/10 Kate Bradshaw
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Results of a post-election poll suggest the economy is the main reason Hillsborough County voters turned down a transit tax earlier this month. The board overseeing region-wide transit said today it hopes to present a multi-county transit plan to voters once the economy improves.
According to a poll surveying some 400 Hillsborough residents, jobs trump all other issues. Ben Kelley of the Kenney Group, the Denver-based consulting team commissioned to do the survey, says this year’s poll results differ vastly from a similar one the firm did in March of 2008. Back then, the number-one concern among respondents was taxes. But that was then.
"When we did the survey in March 2008 the unemployment rate in Hillsborough County was 5 percent."
Now, the unemployment rate is more than twice that, hovering near 12 percent. Kelly says the data shows transit is still on most respondents’ minds, though slightly fewer now see it as an issue. He says the slumping job market may be behind this as well.
"There's a segment of your voting population that is not commuting. That might be resulting in a down-tick in that traffic experience but it's still 4 out of 5 say that's a serious issue."
Kelly says timing is to blame for the referendum’s failure, and that pretty much any self-imposed tax would have failed in this political and economic climate – animal control, water quality, you name it. He says this doesn’t mean county residents don’t see grinding congestion on Hillsborough roads as a problem.
"I would describe this electorate, despite the result on November 2nd as still pro transit, but frugal on tax spending for it."
But Karen Jaroch, a member of the anti-tax group No Tax For Tracks, is one of the initiative’s most vocal opponents. She is calling the Kenney Group poll post-election spin. She says there’s no way to get around it: the voters soundly rejected the penny sales tax that would have funded transit.
"They saw the plan and they rejected the plan. Don't be fooled by polls with leading questions that leave ample room for spin doctors."
Today, there’s little question among board members of the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transit Authority, or TBARTA, that they still want to remake bay-area transit. The legislature created TBARTA in 2007 with the intent of creating a transit master plan encompassing seven West-Central Florida counties. It includes the overhaul the failed Hillsborough ballot initiative would have funded. Now, they’re looking at a new approach. TBARTA Board member Ann Hildebrand, also a Pasco County Commissioner, says it’s about region.
"Collectively, people don't know that there are county lines. I go to Hillsborough, I go to Pinellas, I don't say, 'oh, I'm crossing into the line, I might get to go on a rail. No, I've got to stay on this road here."
She says TBARTA is looking at a multi-county transit referendum – when Tampa Bay is ready.
"2010 is definitely not the right time, but I'm not talking about 2010, I'm talking in the future that we need to look as a region, and one of the most important things, which I should have said, is that we already have Tampa Bay water and that is a perfect example of regionalism. That is six member governments, the 3 county area and the 3 major cities."
But if voters do approve such a plan, TBARTA says it would need some help. Today Executive Director Bob Clifford says among potential partners are the Florida Department of Transportation, Florida Rail Enterprise, and freight giant CSX. That company has reportedly said it could sell 97 miles of track to TBARTA for use in a passenger rail system. CSX has drawn criticism for overcharging and liability issues in its dealings with the state over the Orlando-area Sun Rail project. Still, Clifford says he sees potential.
"It's not just passenger rail, it's also freight rail. And understanding what their needs are and the connectivity of our ports, both in Manatee and in Tampa, connectivity with major activity centers from a freight perspective and how that all ties in."
Another factor officials underscores the importance of connectivity is the proposed high speed rail line between Tampa and Orlando, which, if all goes as planned, will be completed in 2015. Clifford says TBARTA could work with the Florida Department of Transportation to utilize shoulder and even as-yet nonexistent high occupancy vehicle lanes for buses. He said they could get passengers from the high speed train’s Downtown Tampa terminus to other counties.
"They're going to the beaches in Pinellas, Manatee and Sarasota counties. They're going north to the Nature Coast. They're going throughout all of the places of the region, we have to be able to provide that connectivity in a way that makes the additive of high speed rail a valuable and useful tool for transportation within the entire region."
Ronnie Duncan, Chair of the TBARTA Board, says connecting visitors is all well and good, but steps should be taken to improve the transit situation for area residents before the train gets here.
"Our citizens need that now, even before 2015, so I guess I would like to see us, in that regard come back in the December meeting with a timeline."
But the high speed rail project may face challenges from GOP leadership, since it’s being funded primarily with federal stimulus dollars. Emboldened by their recent gains, some Republicans have threatened to tell the President thanks, but no thanks. TBARTA Board member and Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard says there’s no point in talking about a bullet train as if it’ll be here next week.
"Because even though we have received over $2 billion in funding, only about $16 million of that has been spent. So, to not put too fine a point on it, we are not pregnant by any stretch of the imagination. And, we could go backwards."
The Board elected to send a resolution to the governor showing their support of the bullet train. Board members Shawn Harrison, a Republican state representative from Florida’s sixtieth district and Dave Russell, a Hernando County Commissioner, were that motion’s only dissenting votes.