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Tampa thinks about holding city-only referendum on transit options

TAMPA — If Mayor Bob Buckhorn has his way, the next transit referendum in Hillsborough County could be a Tampa-only vote.

"Light rail is something we're going to have to go back to with the voters," he said.

Buckhorn said last week that city officials will try to round up support in the Legislature to allow Florida's largest cities to opt out of the current requirement that sales tax referendums be countywide.

That could give the city a chance to reboot the kind of transit tax proposal that in 2010 went down to defeat in Hillsborough County even though it won support from precincts inside the city.

"All we're asking for is the ability to self-govern and to let the voters of the major metropolitan cities to choose their own destinies and to improve their own quality of life," Buckhorn said.

And this is not just Buckhorn talking.

The idea also has been embraced by members of the Urban Partnership, which consists of the mayors of Tampa, St. Petersburg, Orlando, Miami, Hialeah, Jacksonville and Fort Lauderdale.

"We have discussed it, we're on the same page and we agreed that we would pursue some initiatives together, and we put transportation and infrastructure at the very top of the list," Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer said.

"We're all about home rule," St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster said.

The idea is expected to be discussed by the St. Petersburg City Council as a city priority for the coming legislative session.

"You want the people of your city to have the ability to vote on initiatives dealing with transportation," said Foster. That said, wanting all options available for the city "doesn't mean we won't support (Pinellas County) in their initiative."

The day after the election, Buckhorn talked to the city's lobbyists about Tampa's agenda for the coming legislative session. The referendum proposal is a top priority, he said.

Still, Buckhorn expects selling the idea would be an "uphill struggle" in the Republican-controlled Legislature and does not assume that it will win approval in the coming session.

If the measure were to find a sponsor, make it through committee, be passed by both House and Senate and signed by Gov. Rick Scott, a Tampa referendum theoretically could be scheduled as soon as 2014 or for the city elections in March 2015, Buckhorn said.

But Buckhorn said it would be different than the proposal rejected by Hillsborough voters two years ago.

Buckhorn does not yet have numbers for costs and revenues, nor details about light rail routes or other transportation improvements for any proposal the city might put forward. But he said a detailed plan would be part of anything submitted to voters.

"Before I would ever go to a referendum, I would want to make sure that everyone knew everything that I knew," Buckhorn said. "I'm not going to the voters with some half-baked scheme that doesn't have the meat on the bones."

In November 2010, a proposal to raise Hillsborough's sales tax by 1 cent and spend the money on road improvements, a doubling of the bus system and light rail was defeated 58 to 42 percent. Election results show the question did best in precincts that were along or close to the proposed rail lines, especially in working-class and heavily minority districts along a proposed north-south route.

After that election, a poll of 400 voters found that among those who voted no, 58 percent said they rejected the transit tax because they opposed paying more taxes or believed the proposal represented wasteful government spending.

In July and August, the Kenney Group did another poll for the Hillsborough Metropolitan Planning Organization, a local transportation policymaking agency.

In that survey, a majority of respondents both in the city and countywide said they strongly or somewhat agreed that Florida cities like Tampa should have the ability to hold their own sales tax referendums separate from their surrounding counties.

In that survey, a majority of respondents also supported the idea of building a demonstration commuter rail line between downtown Tampa and either the University of South Florida or Tampa International Airport. Support ran 3 to 6 percentage points higher among Tampa residents than in the countywide sample.

When it came to paying for transportation improvements, half of those polled overall said they would strongly or somewhat support paying more in taxes or fees. Inside the city, support was 54 percent.

However difficult, Buckhorn said local officials need to try again on light trail. Not having it, he said, makes Tampa "far less competitive."

"We're the only city of our size in the country without transit," he said. "Transit will be a part of our future. It's just a matter of when."

Richard Danielson can be reached at danielson@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3403.

Tampa thinks about holding city-only referendum on transit options 11/10/12 [Last modified: Saturday, November 10, 2012 3:31am]
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