Buckhorn calls for Hillsborough transit referendum by fall 2016

Bob Buckhorn wants a referendum by the fall of 2016 with regional rail in the picture.

Published March 25 2014
Updated March 26 2014

TAMPA — For a second year, Mayor Bob Buckhorn on Tuesday used his State of the City speech to make the case for an upgraded regional transportation network, calling for a Hillsborough transit referendum by fall 2016.

"We've got to have more transportation options," Buckhorn told a crowd of about 850. "For too long, the only real option we've ever given ourselves is to build more roads, widen them and start over."

Instead, Buckhorn said, the region needs to talk about rail that connects Tampa to St. Petersburg and Pinellas County.

"Our goal, at the latest, should be a referendum in the fall of 2016," Buckhorn said. "I would prefer sooner."

He did not mention Hillsborough's last attempt at a similar referendum. Four years ago, that vote won precincts in the city, but lost in the unincorporated county on its way to defeat.

Along the way, he said, everyone should recognize that rail will never pay for itself, and anyone who argues that it can survive from fare box revenue is kidding.

Stations would not be in every neighborhood, so transit must include buses connecting to light rail and bus rapid transit from New Tampa to downtown.

"Buses are a big part of this solution," he said. "It's not just one option. It's not just two options. It's multiple options, but we need to start now."

And the efforts should not stop here, he said.

"We need to support Greenlight Pinellas," he said, referring to the Nov. 4 Pinellas referendum on whether to raise that county's sales tax by 1 cent to expand bus service and create a 24-mile light rail line from St. Petersburg to Clearwater.

"We need to do everything we can to make sure that passes," Buckhorn said. "When Pinellas succeeds, we succeed."

Hillsborough County Commission Chairman Mark Sharpe afterward praised the mayor "for being big, bold and audacious."

"It's what drives economic development and job creation," said Sharpe, an advocate for mass transit and a leading voice in Hillsborough's evolving discussion of the relationship between transportation and economic growth. There's no reason, he added, why the region can't connect its two large commercial districts, Gateway and West Shore.

Sharpe said he agreed with Buckhorn on "what he said about the region working best when it works together."

"Greenlight needs to succeed," he said. "What we're doing must succeed."

Buckhorn gave his speech in the Tampa Armature Works Building, a 103-year-old red brick warehouse built to store trolley cars, for the same reason that last year's speech took place in the downtown Kress building: to spotlight older buildings that could be put to new uses.

"They represent our community's history, but, more importantly, they represent our community's future," Buckhorn said, the city's skyline visible behind him through the building's open bay doors.

The old trolley barn is the centerpiece of a planned development that includes about 1,900 units of multifamily housing overlooking a bend in the Hillsborough River north of downtown.

Nearby, the city is spending $6.5 million upgrading Water Works Park, and restaurateur Richard Gonzmart is spending $4 million-plus to create Ulele Native-Inspired Food and Spirits.

In the 41-minute speech, Buckhorn built his themes — service, determination, enterprise and duty to others — around the stories of inspiring Tampa residents, including:

• Longtime Historic Tampa Heights activist Lena Young-Green and her son, Owen Young, principal at Middleton High School. There, Buckhorn said, Young has taken a school at risk of closure because of poor performance to the point where its students win national robotics competitions.

• Berkeley Prep sophomore Declan Farmer, 16, the leading scorer on an American sled hockey team that this month won gold at the Paralympics in Sochi, Russia.

• Julius Davis, who grew up in east Tampa, started as a laborer at his father's masonry company and now co-owns VoltAir Consulting Engineers, which has tripled in size in five years.

• Legacy Green, a preschooler who at the age of 3 met Buckhorn last year when the city began a project to demolish 75 abandoned homes and improve city services in Sulphur Springs, where she lives.

"As we grow, we must also lift," he said. "That's my little girl. That's your little girl. That's all of our little girls."

Through the mix he described Tuesday — redevelopment and economic opportunity, plus help for struggling neighborhoods — Buckhorn said he hopes "little girls like Legacy can point to us … and say, 'I now have a better chance.' "