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Light rail's odds improve with Hillsborough Commissioner Ken Hagan on board

Like so many others, I get excited about some day seeing a light rail system rapidly moving people from the University of South Florida, through downtown and out toward TIA.

Of course, I also marvel at the route County Commissioner Ken Hagan traveled to become one of the proposal's most important and most underrated advocates.

A fiscal conservative, Hagan warmed up to the idea of the multimodal initiative after months of due diligence.

He recognizes that even if the board places the 1-cent-on-the- dollar sales tax increase initiative on the 2010 ballot, it still has to win the approval of voters likely to be mired in a recession.

As a candidate for the 2010 countywide seat being vacated by Jim Norman, he didn't take those facts lightly.

Clearly, it took more than the prospect of rail and enhanced bus service to get Hagan on board. A self-described "numbers guy," Hagan went down the street of research, turned left at the avenue of other cities' progress and cruised the boulevard of economic impact before concluding that this region needs a transportation overhaul.

One of the facts that won him over: For every dollar spent on rail, we can expect an economic return of $4.18.

Hagan isn't a Johnny-come-lately to the multimodal momentum. He began exploring the light rail possibilities in Oct. 2006 and moved to form a 23-member panel.

The County Transportation Task Force began meeting in January 2007, and in some ways, it served as a connector between the local light rail leaders and the needs of county residents whose votes would be critical.

The panel, which includes a vocal proponent in County Commissioner Mark Sharpe, worked closely with Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio and other key players to fuse its efforts. Commissioners already moved on one of the task force's first recommendations and approved $500 million in infrastructure improvements such as enhanced intersections and traffic signals.

Through meetings with officials from cities that already launched rail projects, Hagan said the task force picked up on a common theme: focus on nontransit components and don't be afraid of roads.

"To a T, each of these folks had the same element in their speech," Hagan said. "They all said the average voter is going to ask, 'What's in it for me?' "

Now the commission prepares to hear the task force's final light rail recommendation Nov. 4. One thing the proposal will include is having 25 percent of the new funds going toward road improvements throughout the county.

Hagan is certain to stress these nontransit projects and the fact that the county is better off addressing its $3.8 billion in unfunded needs now than falling further behind.

While touting how the initiative would solve specific county projects, Hagan also is quick to note this proposal wouldn't relieve developers of their commitments.

In the end, Hagan realizes unclogging arteries such as Brandon's Lithia-Pinecrest Road or New Tampa's Cross Creek Boulevard will be as important to passing the initiative as visions of trains zooming through the city.

"We could come up with the most idealistic rail plan in the world, but if it gets shot down 60-40, it doesn't do the community any good," Hagan said.

That kind of vote seems less likely today, in part because Hagan drove through the process with an open mind and an eye toward all residents.

That's all I'm saying.

Light rail's odds improve with Hillsborough Commissioner Ken Hagan on board 10/23/09 [Last modified: Friday, October 23, 2009 11:08pm]
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