Iorio addresses Hillsborough MPO on transit plan

05/05/09 Mitch E. Perry
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The question of how to sell a light rail system to Hillsborough County voters next year was discussed at the County’s Metropolitan Planning Organization meeting this morning.

Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio, who has been the leading figure in raising the possibility of light rail finally coming to the region, was given the floor.

Iorio referred to the last serious plan for rail in Hillsborough County a decade ago. She said the biggest since her tenure as a County Commission in the 1980s was that it was all about regionalism right now in selling such a concept.

Iorio also told the MPO that organizers need to learn the lessons of why SunRail, the proposed mass transit system in Central Florida that would have used existing CSX tracks, has failed to get support in the Legislature.

Iorio said one obvious lesson is that the plan was too complicated for the public to understand.

The mayor said she also thought that using CSX lines for transport was a problem, that passengers and freight don’t mix. However, she said that a way needs to be found to work with CSX on a right of way for a transit line from the USF campus area to downtown Tampa.

Iorio said another lesson from the SunRail debacle is that getting funding from the state for a mass transit proposal is not a given. She said getting matching federal funding for the project seems very viable, but not from the state.

In fact, the state Legislature in the past week not only rejected funding for the proposed Central Florida transit plan, but also denied funding for Tri-Rail, which currently carries more than 14,000 passengers weekdays between Miami and Palm Beach County.

The executive director for that service told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel today that if the state does not approve funding in the last days of the legislative session, weekday train service will be cut nearly in half, and all weekend service would be eliminated; and if no funding comes in, the entire service would end.

Iorio told the Metropolitan Planning Organization to think creatively to get the state involved.

Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin Beckner said he was concerned that the public is being inundated with too many plans right now, and called for simplicity in presenting the penny cent sales tax proposal to Hillsborough voters next year.

Louis Miller, executive director of Tampa International Airport, said he seconded Iorio’s suggestion that if Hillsborough County voters approve the plan next year, the next link should be to Pasco County.

But Richard Wainio, director & CEO of the Tampa Port Authority, appeared not to be convinced that Pasco should be the next link.

Tampa City Councilman John Dingfelder also endorsed keeping the ballot measure relatively simple in scope, saying he feared voters could get lost in too many details.

City Council member Mary Mulhern expressed concern about whether the 1-cent sales tax proposal in Hillsborough County would be successful. She urged county officials to do market research to learn how best to sell the plan.

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