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3 strikes on mass transit: Did Tampa Bay just whiff as site for business expansion?

By Robert Trigaux
Hillsborough County commissioners listen to residents concerns during a public hearing before the commission's vote on the Go Hillsborough community transportation plan, on Wednesday evening, April 27, 2016 at the All People's Life Center in Tampa.Their 4-3 vote against putting the measure on the ballot is a third strike for local mass transit. [ZACK WITTMAN | Times]

That's three strikes on mass transit. Did Tampa Bay just whiff on a top goal sought by the business community?

In 2010, the Moving Hillsborough Forward mass transit tax initiative was soundly defeated by voters in the midst of a recession. Strike one. In 2014, 62 percent of Pinellas County voters said no to the Greenlight Pinellas transit referendum, nixing a higher sales tax to expand bus service and build a 24-mile light rail system. Strike two.

On Wednesday night, Hillsborough County commissioners voted 4-3 against putting a half-cent-per-dollar sales tax for transportation before voters on the Nov. 8 ballot. Instead, the Go Hillsborough initiative was sent back to the drawing board. Strike three?

Three mass transit efforts. Three duds. It's beginning to feel like a deja vu plot from Groundhog Day.

Business leaders and corporate site selection experts contacted Thursday expressed frustration on three fronts. First, they lamented the inability, again, to move forward on meaningful mass transit. Second, they called for a major rethink on how to fund it. Three failed plans in six years seeking higher sales taxes clearly is not the way to win public opinion.

And third, they worried that yet another failed attempt to embrace mass transit could brand Tampa Bay as a business market that lacks the leadership to get things done.

"Ask any room of business leaders what is their most pressing issue," said Gary Sasso, CEO of Tampa's Carlton Fields law firm and one of the area business leaders most involved over the years in the push for better mass transit. "Almost always, they say transportation." But these days, voters are angry and distrustful of government, "making it hard to sell these programs."

Sasso anticipated Wednesday's outcome. Why didn't Hillsborough commissioners simply approve the project and let voters decide in the fall? Because, Sasso suggests, the commission figured residents would not approve it. And instead of suffering another failure at the polls, the commission opted to try and figure out something more palatable to voters at another time.

"You can see it around the country," Sasso said. "The lesson we just learned is: Mass transit efforts rarely work at a county level because urban voters may like it but rural voters don't see the benefit."

The Go Hillsborough initiative amounted to, in Sasso's critical assessment, "a lot of transportation projects and a tax. But not a plan."

One mass transit backer, the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, on Thursday expressed disappointment in the County Commission vote not to proceed. "Our community must make a significant, long-term investment in transportation. Kicking the can down the road is not what we expect of our elected officials nor what our community deserves," the chamber stated.

Long before Wednesday's thumbs-down vote, the Tampa Bay market was singled out as the largest U.S. metro area without a mass transit system. Even Orlando, smaller in population and metro GDP, is operating a commuter train lines on existing CSX tracks.

Corporate site selectors — consultants who help companies pick the best places in the country for expansion — lately have praised the growth and livability of the Tampa Bay region. They also wish this area was making more tangible progress on mass transit beyond adding more roads.

Still, site selectors I contacted Thursday said one more mass transit stumble here is not necessarily a major deal killer for the area. Andrew Shapiro of Biggins Lacy Shapiro & Co., who recently toured this area, offered up this business relocation scenario.

"Would the lack of mass transit keep an otherwise attractive Tampa out of contention for a project?" No.

"Could that alone cause Tampa to be eliminated later in the selection process?" Potentially, Shapiro said. But not likely.

Site selector John Boyd of the Boyd Company, who also tracks the Tampa Bay metro area, said more mass transit is a nice goal but not yet a critical factor. But as Tampa Bay grows, it will become more significant, he acknowledged.

"Looking at it now, is that Hills­borough commissioner vote going to tip the scales against new business projects? My sense is it is not," Boyd said.

Whew. Looks like we'll be getting another turn at bat, after all.

Contact Robert Trigaux at [email protected] Follow @venturetampabay.