TAMPA — Advocates for commuter rail finally have something to cheer about in Florida.
First, President Barack Obama announced $1.25 billion in federal seed money to connect Tampa and Orlando with high-speed rail.
Now, Hillsborough County commissioners are poised to ask voters in November if they support raising the sales tax by a penny to pay for local light rail.
But all the attention given to the high-speed rail money is having a side effect: Some would-be voters are confused about the need for a local transit tax.
"It is muddied," said Hillsborough Commissioner Mark Sharpe, a Republican and leading advocate of the light-rail initiative. "It's going to continue to be muddied. And I'm not sure you can unmuddy it."
In debates and community forums, the confusion invariably pokes through with questions about why commissioners would consider a tax when Obama has already pledged money.
At a light-rail forum last week in Sun City Center, one resident wanted to know what assurance there was that the governor won't seek to overturn a favorable vote. That happened a few years ago, he said, when Gov. Jeb Bush persuaded Florida voters to rescind their earlier support of high-speed rail.
Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio was forced to interject at another recent forum on rail when the moderator repeatedly melded the two issues.
"Even if President Obama had not come in January with the $1.25 billion for high-speed rail, we would still be moving forward with our light rail and better bus system for Hillsborough County. Sometimes there's so much talk of different types of rail, I think it gets a little bit confusing."
At a tea party rally in Tampa a week ago, one speaker blended the two projects as part of the same "fad" and "fairy tale," using them as examples of government spending run amok.
Sam Rashid, a veteran of antitax campaigns who is opposing a Hillsborough tax referendum, agreed that the overlapping timing of the two issues presents a challenge to supporters.
Opponents have a simple message: The government wants to spend a bunch of money on a pipe dream. Supporters have a nuanced argument.
"You can easily sell one image. I think the picture people are drawing in their minds is of a monorail system from Disney World all through Tampa, not realizing it's two different animals," Rashid said.
Hillsborough County leaders have been discussing whether to build a local rail system for 25 years. Now, a task force is recommending raising the county's sales tax by a penny to pay for light rail, expanded bus service and road work.
The tax would raise $170 million to $200 million annually, much of it going to build and operate light-rail lines connecting downtown Tampa with the University of South Florida area and the West Shore district.
In January, Obama announced a down payment on high-speed rail lines between Tampa and Orlando, another on-again, off-again idea. Florida voters approved mandating construction of high-speed rail in a 2000 state constitutional amendment, but removed it four years later at then-Gov. Bush's urging.
Provided both move forward, the high-speed rail station in downtown Tampa would be integrated with the light-rail system.
Supporters acknowledge the hazy image many voters may have about rail plans in Hillsborough. With the local initiative proceeding slowly, opponents have been actively shaping the debate in the absence of an organized advocacy campaign.
Adam Goodman, a veteran political campaigner who is working with the newly formed pro-transit group Moving Hillsborough Forward, said the promotion effort hasn't begun.
Forbes.com recently placed the Tampa Bay region last among the nation's 60 largest metro areas for commuters. Goodman said the situation will only get worse, with little money available to keep widening roads that become congested as quickly as new lanes are added. While light rail and more buses won't solve the problem, it will give commuters options, regardless of what happens with high-speed rail.
"The idea that talk is cheap will be translated to: A lack of action is very expensive," Goodman said. "Once people in Hillsborough County are exposed to the options — what if we do this vs. what if we do nothing at all — the debate changes."
David Singer, a lawyer with Holland & Knight who is serving as campaign coordinator for the group, said it will work to mitigate the confusion. But he said he doesn't see a big hurdle.
"Awareness surrounding transit is certainly heightened by the fact that high-speed rail is coming, and that is a good thing," he said.
Just the same, it's clear some advocates of the local initiative are shaping their pitch to reflect that high-speed rail for the region is in the background.
During a County Commission discussion last week about a May public hearing on the referendum, Chairman Ken Hagan addressed a potential flash point.
"There's a lot of anger out there that the president, the Congress, state Legislature have not listened to the people, haven't given them a vote on health care, on high-speed rail, and they want the opportunity to vote this up or down," Hagan said. "That's why I've repeatedly said they should have an opportunity to vote on it."
At the Sun City Center forum last week, Commissioner Sharpe underscored that local, light rail is needed in Hillsborough County as an antidote to worsening roadway congestion. But he said the two should complement each other.
As it stands now, someone arriving by train in downtown Tampa from Orlando will have few options for getting to International Plaza or Busch Gardens, short of hailing a cab.
"What kind of calling card is that?" he said.
Bill Varian can be reached at (813) 226-3387 or email@example.com.