Battle for light rail a part of Tampa mayor's legacy

TAMPA — Pipes, a park and museums. Now that the transportation tax issue has failed in Hillsborough County, that's Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio's legacy.

They are no small accomplishments. The $100 million pipes projects replace crumbling, century-old water delivery and sewage systems.

And the $42 million redevelopment of Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park that includes a new Tampa Museum of Art and Glazer Children's Museum have changed the face of downtown.

But the multibillion-dollar transportation initiative that would have transformed the city and county will not happen on Iorio's watch.

Iorio made a referendum on a 1-cent sales tax to build light rail and expand the county bus system a top priority during her second term in office, which ends in the spring. It had almost her full focus for the past eight months.

So how stinging of a defeat was its failure on Election Day?

"You never lose when you are fighting for something you believe in," Iorio said. "And I very firmly believe in it. I'm disappointed, but it's not a loss as far as I'm concerned."

In most cities with light rail, she pointed out, ballot initiatives to pay for it failed on the first try.

"One day, even though I'll be long out of office, when there is a successful referendum, everyone will point to the effort in 2010 as the critical building block," she said. "I firmly put that down as an accomplishment, not a negative."

Others agree.

"She'll be remembered for having tried to do that. Tried and failed," Scott Paine, a University of Tampa government professor, said of Iorio's rail effort. "One can say of that, and I think city voters might say it, that she didn't fail. The referendum didn't pass, but she was doing what the folks in the city wanted."

Although the tax tanked in the unincorporated parts of the county, many Tampa voters along the proposed rail line voted in favor of it.

"In history, she will be looked back at as the person who tried to push the envelope on this," said Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida. "She will be judged positively for trying to do it, and the reality is that people are not going to fault her for the failure."

Without the rail, Iorio's legacy will be the park and pipes, just as previous mayors have left their marks.

For Bob Martinez, it's the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center and the Tampa Convention Center, and annexation of land that became New Tampa.

For Sandy Freedman, it's the distinction of being the city's first female mayor, the Florida Aquarium and the tearing down of crack houses.

For Dick Greco, it's Centro Ybor, the Marriott Waterside Hotel and Raymond James Stadium, built with a community investment tax he supported.

Iorio presided over the city during a real estate boom that saw the construction of condo towers downtown and a bust that forced her to trim hundreds of jobs from the city payroll. Despite the turbulence, she made Hixon Park and the nearby museums a reality.

"That's going to be the visible signature of her term of office, and I think it's going to be perceived over time as just a wonderful reinvestment in the waterfront," Paine said. "That's huge. It's a very positive, very visible legacy."

All summer, crowds of kids from throughout the county splashed in the fountains at the park's edge, and some days a line extends outside the entrance to the children's museum. The art museum opened with a Henri Matisse exhibit, and an Edgar Degas show opens this spring.

"The biggest thing is, she finally got the art museum built and the park was redesigned. Those are big projects," said political consultant Vic DiMaio. "She's had probably the toughest legacy because she's had to cut as much as build."

And then there are the pipes, which anyone who has navigated construction sites on city streets in the past two years knows well.

"Those are unglamorous projects that nobody likes to point to and nobody sees but are necessary to get done," DiMaio said.

Ask Iorio what she believes her legacy will be, and she talks about neighborhood improvements, the Riverwalk, reconstruction of 40th Street, downtown redevelopment and the city's plunging crime rate.

But the park, she said, can actually bring tears to her eyes.

"When I go there sometimes and I see it full of people, kicking the soccer ball, throwing Frisbees. People with their blankets on the grass, children playing in the fountain. People stop me and say, 'Thank you,' " she said.

It wasn't a project that came easy. It evolved from plans for a massive new art museum conceived by Greco and squashed by Iorio amid bitter squabbling with art museum leaders.

"It's a little bit of a story about resilience. I've shown it to my children as an example of that," Iorio said. "I haven't had a single person say to me, 'I went to that park and, boy, what a disappointment.' It's a lasting gift to the community, and the community deserves it."

As for rail, Iorio said she's happy to be the person who revived a decades-old discussion of regional rail in 2006 by sending a "white paper" to hundreds of political and business leaders. "One day when there is a successful referendum and we do start building a successful transportation system, I will be right there as a private citizen fighting for it," she said.

Janet Zink can be reached at jzink@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3401.

Battle for light rail a part of Tampa mayor's legacy 11/06/10 [Last modified: Saturday, November 6, 2010 11:48pm]

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