TAMPA — Hillsborough County is closer than ever to putting a mass transit referendum on the ballot.
County commissioners voted unanimously Wednesday to have their attorney begin crafting ballot language for November 2010.
Voters would be asked whether they support approving as much as an extra penny sales tax to pay for a network of commuter rail lines, roadways, increased bus service and trails.
Supporters say Hillsborough County has lost economic development and suffered clogged roads by its failure to embrace mass transit. Though the economy is ailing, the cost of rail and other transit spokes will only go up, one said.
"I just don't honestly think we can afford to delay," said Commissioner Mark Sharpe, "because what we don't do, future generations will have to do at a much greater cost."
Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio has been championing a proposal to lay commuter tracks in Hillsborough for much of her administration, ramping up the pitch in the past two years.
Wednesday's vote was significant because Iorio can't place an initiative on the ballot, but county commissioners can. And this was their first concrete movement in support.
It came as somewhat of a surprise, during what was supposed be an update from Commission Chairman Ken Hagan on efforts of a transportation task force he has led since January 2007.
Hagan said the task force will solicit ideas at community meetings. Current plans call for phased installation of rail linking downtown Tampa with the University of South Florida and Tampa International Airport, and expand from there.
The task force will seek to develop detailed plans for an interconnecting system of roads, rail and improved bus service.
"Typically, light rail is what always gets headlines," Hagan said. "No doubt, that's the sexy part of it. But this will be multimodal."
The task force will also look at how to pay the bill. A full penny sales tax? A half-penny? Should property taxes that pay for buses be eliminated as a tradeoff? Those are questions to be debated, Hagan said.
He hopes to have a proposal before commissioners by September, which he acknowledged is ambitious. That's when Sharpe asked that County Attorney Renee Lee start crafting ballot language to spur the effort.
Wednesday's vote does not guarantee the measure will be put on the ballot. At least two commissioners voiced reservations about asking voters to tax themselves for mass transit.
Commissioner Al Higginbotham noted that the state is also considering raising the sales tax by a penny. Together, the two new hikes could raise the sales tax in Hillsborough to 9 cents.
"Can we bear that?" Higginbotham said, suggesting the county should maybe look at extending the half-cent Community Investment Tax beyond its current 2026 expiration date.
Commissioner Jim Norman, the only board member remaining from the fight in the mid 1990s to get that tax passed, offered a history lesson. He reminded other board members that earlier efforts to pass the tax to pay for schools were rejected in a rosier economic climate.
He encouraged commissioners to develop a backup plan for future transportation needs.
"What's the plan next if this fails?" Norman asked. "The reality check of this is, it's going to fail. Are we just going to abandon transportation?"
Bill Varian can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3387.