TAMPA — A slight majority of voters like the idea of a 1 cent sales tax to pay for light rail and other transportation improvements in Hillsborough County, according to a St. Petersburg Times/Bay News 9 poll.
In a survey of 601 probable voters, 51 percent said they favor the tax and 39 percent say they oppose it. Ten percent are not sure. The poll was conducted Oct. 1-3 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
A referendum on the tax, which would pay for expanded bus service, road improvements and a rail line running from Tampa International Airport to north of the University of South Florida, will appear on the Nov. 2 ballot.
It requires support from at least 50 percent of voters to pass. Only Hillsborough voters have a say in the issue, but the sales tax would apply to anyone making a purchase in the county.
Supporters of the tax have worked to overcome the perception that it's a "rail tax" benefitting only city of Tampa residents. Their campaign has emphasized road improvements that will be funded with 25 percent of tax revenues, as well as improved bus service throughout the county that would start months after approval.
That message appears to be getting through.
The poll shows similar attitudes toward the tax among city dwellers and those who live in the distant suburbs. Among survey participants in the southern part of the county, near Sun City Center and Apollo Beach, 61 percent said they support the proposal. The tax would raise one cent for every dollar spent on taxable purchases in Hillsborough County.
Some of the survey respondents say they back the tax even though they might never use the train or buses it provides.
Rose Mary Ammons, 77, a retired psychologist who lives near Lutz in northwestern Hillsborough, said she supports the tax even though she generally prefers driving.
"There are people who don't like to drive, and there isn't much in the county for them," she said. "When I get older, ... I might ride the bus."
She said she would like to see buses circulating in the Northdale/Carrollwood/Lutz area, and she calls light rail "enticing."
"It just makes sense," she said. "It's ridiculous to have all this carbon pollution pouring out from all the cars we have."
Sally Martin, 72, of New Tampa, agrees.
"We are just overrun with traffic. We need some relief from that and we need a way to move the citizens around town rapidly," she said.
Like Ammons, she still drives.
"But I'm beginning to lose my vision. I'm going to have to rely on public transportation at some point," she said.
Dan Liman, 82, lives in West Tampa and says he probably wouldn't ride the train and never takes the bus, but he knows people rely on public transportation. And he would support anything that would pay for better roads.
"We need better transportation in Tampa and Hillsborough County," he said. "I don't care what form it is."
Liman isn't alone in his criticism of transportation options in the county.
Sixty-four percent of those surveyed rated the transportation system, including roads and buses, as fair or poor. Only 26 percent deemed it good or excellent.
The poll also found that 69 percent of African-American voters support the new tax, while only 49 percent of white voters do. Among Democrats surveyed, 57 percent favor it, while only 42 percent of Republicans do. Fifty-six percent of independents say they support it.
People who oppose the plan say it's because they generally don't want new taxes or don't believe the money will be used in a way that will help them.
"I live on a fixed income and I don't want to pay more sales taxes," said Brandon resident Steven Blackman, 66.
He also doesn't believe people will use public transportation.
"Everybody mostly has cars to get around," he said. "Since we've been on cars so many years, I don't think people will go back to riding trains."
Del Milligan, 64, who lives in Riverview, says money for transportation improvements should come from existing budgets.
"There will always, always, always be wonderful, terrific reasons for raising taxes," he said. "But I'm taxed out."
He doesn't buy the argument that light rail will serve as an economic engine, saying he believes it will generate jobs during construction but not after that.
"I don't think we have a transportation problem," he said. "At least not enough to support rail. I think it's going to be a boondoggle."
Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio, one of the leading advocates for the tax, said she's not surprised by the poll results.
"I have felt for the past month or so that it's 50-50," she said. "If we weren't in such tough economic times, I think it would be a different situation."
Most people she talks to believe the county's transportation system needs improving, she said. But the bad economy makes a new tax a hard sell, and it's difficult to explain how the new money will be spent.
"This is not a sound bite campaign," she said.
Typically, though, once people see that plans call for doubling the bus system and improving roads and intersections all over the county, they support the proposal, she said.
"We've just got to continue to get out and educate and share the information with as many voters as possible," Iorio said.
The mayor has been a frequent speaker for Moving Hillsborough Forward, a nonprofit created to push the tax. So far, the group has raised more than $1.2 million to fund its campaign, which includes brochures, yard signs and television advertising.
Karen Jaroch is a founder of NoTaxForTracks.com, a grassroots group formed to fight the proposal. Like Iorio, she viewed the poll results through the lens of public education, saying her organization hasn't been able to communicate its antitax message because it lacks the resources. No Tax has raised about $17,000.
"They have the machine to go out and advertise and get in front of people," Jaroch said. "We're outgunned. They are the big corporate interests with the deep pockets."
Janet Zink can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3401.