TAMPA — A plan to reinvent Hillsborough County's car-focused transportation network with light rail and expanded bus service suffered a convincing defeat Tuesday.
With almost all precincts reporting, voters overwhelmingly rejected a proposed 1-cent sales tax increase to pay for the region's first light rail system, as well as road expansions and a doubling of the bus fleet. The margin was roughly three to two against the proposal.
Supporters of the measure, which included many of Tampa's business and civic leaders, said they presented a good plan that met strong opposition due to the economy. They vowed to come back in the future with a new plan for mass transit, though perhaps when the economy looks stronger.
"This is a very difficult time for people," said Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio, who reignited a decades-long debate four years ago with a call for the community to finally invest in mass transit, including local commuter rail. "They are uncertain about the future. When people are uncertain about the future, they don't want to make an investment like this."
For now, the defeat halts talk of Hillsborough County leading the way in what had been envisioned as a regional rail network linking neighboring counties. The margin of defeat will certainly force supporters to rethink their pitch to voters if they hope to try again.
"Voters do see the need for regional transit and transportation," said Ronnie Duncan, chairman of the Tampa Bay Regional Transit Authority. "I think what they were uncomfortable with was the funding mechanism."
Opponents said the outcome echoed national sentiment that voters are fed up with being hit up with more taxes, particularly when they are struggling.
"The mood of the people is we just can't afford all these projects," said Karen Jaroch, founder of the group NoTaxForTracks.com, which raised just $24,000. "I think what you heard the voters of Hillsborough County saying is no to wasteful spending. That's the theme of the whole night."
The group Moving Hillsborough Forward raised nearly $1.6 million to promote the issue, both from Hillsborough County businesses and companies from outside Florida, such as engineering firms and companies that build trains. It barraged airwaves and mailboxes to no avail.
How was the effort defeated despite that fundraising edge?
"The organized opposition is the worst economy since the Great Depression and that's a very powerful force to contend with," said David Singer, a lawyer with Holland & Knight who served as director of Moving Hillsborough Forward. "It's unfortunate. We will respect the decision of the voters and we will come back at some point in time with a different approach."
Hillsborough County has been flirting with the notion of building a localized commuter rail system off and on for nearly three decades. In 2006, Iorio issued a white paper saying it was time to build it.
Facing a backlog of transportation needs, a task force created by county commissioners three years ago recommended that a penny sales tax increase be put to voters. County commissioners voted 5-2 this summer to do so.
The tax was projected to raise $180 million annually to start with, and draw more in matching state and federal grant money for construction.
Opponents focused much of their opposition on rail, saying it cost too much to move too few people and that it would not serve large segments of the population. Recent projections showed the costs of construction had already climbed in the past year.
Voters leaving the polls Tuesday affirmed the analysis offered by supporters of the initiative.
"I'm not in favor of having any taxes raised at this point, even one penny," David Roman, 35, of Gibsonton, said at the Gardenville Recreation Center voting site.
At Christ the King Catholic Church in South Tampa, Eileen Hernandez also voted against the tax. "We are all hurting. We need to find another way other than continuing to tax the locals that have lived here for generations. I'm not really for new taxes, period. We already have enough of it. If they can't do it with what we have, it's pointless."
Times staff writers Janet Zink, Stephanie Wang and Sarah Whitman contributed to this report. Bill Varian can be reached at (813) 226-3387 or email@example.com.