Hillsborough Commissioners get briefed on light rail proposal

09/09/09 Mitch E. Perry
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The most specific plan yet for a potential light rail system in Hillsborough County was presented before the Board of County Commissioners this afternoon.

But before officials with the County’s Transportation Task Force could present their plan, Commissioner Jim Norman said he was growing weary of such presentations, and wanted to have some serious questions asked and answered.

The Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority, also known as HART, is taking the lead on putting together the light rail proposal to Hillsborough officials.

HART’s Executive Director, David Armijo, discussed the reason for such a plan.

Armijo said the plan would include to expand transportation in the County, and would include expanding bus service.

The local cost of the plan would be paid for by a one cent sales tax put on the ballot a year from now. Originally it was to last for 25 years, but now has been extended to 30 years.

Alan Woolkin is from Pheonix and has worked on public referendums for light rail projects. He says that in the past, such proposals fell at a pace of around 65 to 70%. But he said that percentage level has switched in recent year, with that same level of projects now being approved.

Woolkin gave his theories why light rail has become more popular with the public. And Woolkin, sounding like a political pundit advising President Obama on selling health care reform, said that there is a basic question that a campaign for a 1-cent sales tax needs to answer a fundamental question.

Later, Commissioner Kevin Beckner asked HART’s David Armijo, if the referendum passes, when the first tracks would be laid down on the first connecting track.

Armijo added that with a referendum in place, getting money from the federal government will only happen if there’s a local commitment demonstrated, most easily by passage of a funding mechanism.

But Commissioner Jim Norman said he questioned some of the economic assumptions put in the financing model by Armijo, and asked the County’s own budget analyst, Mike Merrill, for his input. Merrill said he had issues with the tax running only for 30 years.

Under current plans, 75% of the 1-cent sales tax would go toward light rail, and the remaining quarter would go to other road projects.

Transportation Task Force Chair Ken Hagen emphasized why that’s a critical issue for him.

The Board will vote later this year on whether to put a referendum on next year’s ballot in Hillsborough.

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