CLEARWATER — Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio never passes an opportunity to plug light rail.
When Iorio lobbied Gov. Charlie Crist for money for a downtown redevelopment project last week, she tied it to building rail, too.
Across the bay, there's no such champion to match her voice, leaving a void in the push to bring light rail to Pinellas County.
A prominent supporter is a key ingredient to winning any referendum to raise taxes and build a rail system, political consultants say. Iorio is vital because she wields enough clout to get attention and to convince voters about the value of building such an expensive system.
"The mayor always plays a very important role. Without the mayor's support, it has not happened in those other communities — Charlotte, Dallas, in Denver," Iorio said.
Already, her prodding has helped persuade Hillsborough County commissioners to begin drafting a possible referendum for 2010 to raise the sales tax 1 percent.
The plan ties into the Tampa Bay Regional Transportation Authority's $36 billion plan to build light rail and rapid bus service in the region by 2050. That would include an expensive route crossing the Howard Frankland Bridge.
St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker and other leading politicians have not embraced rail as fully as Iorio.
The result: Pinellas is perhaps years behind its neighbor in building rail, and it could wait a year after Hillsborough votes to put a similar proposal before Pinellas voters.
Though Iorio said it's fine regionally for Hillsborough to go first, the possible delay worries some officials who fear side effects. "A lot of this is going to be driven by who's first. It dictates what we use," said Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard, vice chairman of the Tampa Bay Regional Transportation Authority.
Or it dictates what isn't accomplished.
"Should we wait until Hillsborough has gone ahead? … The concern with that is, what if it fails in Hillsborough?" said St. Petersburg City Council Chairman Jeff Danner, who is chairing a panel debating a sales tax increase for rail in Pinellas.
Hillsborough has been working on a plan for light rail for more than a decade.
Pinellas, meanwhile, fell in and out of love with different mass transit plans, including a monorail project killed in 2006. The county also has focused money on turning U.S. 19 into a bigger highway of overpasses.
Iorio had a framework for pushing rail when she took office in 2003.
"Getting focus on the issue is critical. That's where having champions, whether it's from elected officials, business or elsewhere, is important," said Alan Wulkan, an Arizona-based consultant who helped rail advocates win votes in Phoenix and Charlotte, N.C.
It didn't hurt Iorio's effort that Hillsborough has bigger population clusters for mass transit, such as downtown and at the University of South Florida, and heavier road congestion.
The leading rail supporter of years past, Ronnie Duncan, left the County Commission last year.
Baker, who leaves office in January, said he supports rail but admittedly gave more effort to improving education and other pet issues. Rail also has yet to become a significant issue in the city's mayoral race.
Danner, Hibbard and County Commissioners Ken Welch and Karen Seel — frequently mentioned advocates — have yet to display enough prominence and passion about rail to champion it.
And so the Pinellas bully pulpit stands empty.
Baker downplayed his role, or the need for a singular figure. Just because Iorio has taken an early lead doesn't mean Pinellas officials are wrong in their approach, Baker said.
Seel and Danner both said that even if Baker had been a bigger advocate, it would have changed little. That's because fundamental questions of routes and costs are still undecided.
There's also no agreement over the date of a referendum yet.
Hibbard and Welch want a 2010 referendum. Seel said last week the county should vote in 2011 to allow time to answer big questions: Should a sales tax increase a half-cent or a full penny? A half-cent won't cover rail costs, estimates show. Should property taxes for public transportation be cut to win over voters?
Even the train car needs to be picked, Hibbard said. Will it be a more expensive light rail that runs with overhead lines, or less costly diesel-motorized vehicles that can be louder?
This is where a champion could help, said David Hill, a political consultant who has worked on rail initiatives in Florida and elsewhere.
Such a person could help create consensus among community leaders, leading to the most crucial part of any campaign: a realistic plan, Hill said.
It may take two or three referendum votes, he said, but rail can succeed politically if people understand how they benefit.
"It was astonishing," he said of an ultimately reversed 2000 Florida high-speed rail referendum. "The very same grumpy old men from St. Petersburg that told me what a bad idea it was, when they saw that, they said, 'Now we could use that.' "
David DeCamp can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4167.