Transit referendum question goes to Hillsborough County commissioners Wednesday

TAMPA — Community leaders have been debating for years whether to ask voters to tax themselves for a new transit system that includes light rail.

Now the question goes to the Hillsborough County Commission, which has the authority to put the question on the ballot. That debate begins Wednesday before the commission.

This is the same government that nixed efforts started in the 1990s to bring localized commuter rail to Hillsborough. But prospects look brighter this time — so far.

Five of the seven commissioners say, at least for now, that they are willing put the question to voters in November 2010.

That leaves plenty of time for the resolve of some of them to weaken. Five of those same commissioners face elections within the next 18 months, either for their own seats or another office.

"This is going to transform over time how we live and work and help us create jobs in this community," said Commissioner Mark Sharpe, who has been the issue's most visible champion among county officials.

Commissioners take their first baby steps on the ballot question Wednesday when they hear the recommendation of a citizens task force. The panel was formed nearly three years ago to chart the county's transportation future.

The 23-person Transportation Task Force is recommending a permanent 1-cent increase to the county's current 7-cent sales tax. The hike would raise billions of dollars in an effort to ease gridlock in the county.

Three-fourths of the money would go toward building a rail system and dramatically increasing bus service, including express and regional routes. The rest would go primarily to road work, particularly in areas not near proposed rail lines.

Money for rail would pay, initially, for two main lines. One would link downtown to the University of South Florida area. The other would connect downtown to the West Shore business district.

Sharpe, a Republican already under attack for the tax increase part of the proposal, emphasizes that only 37 percent of the money would go toward rail. Much of the transit money would go toward greatly expanding bus service.

The 25 percent for traditional road work was a priority of commission Chairman Ken Hagan. He pushed to create the task force, which he also chairs.

Hagan said he insisted on at least that much for roads to ensure the measure has any hope of passing. Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio has pushed for a greater allotment for transit.

But, Hagan said, as consultants have told the task force, residents in outer regions of the county have to see some benefit for themselves in order to be persuaded to support the measure. Besides that, the county has a long list of needed road work with no other means to pay for it, he said.

"Clearly, it's critically important that we address our most urgent transportation needs," Hagan said. "By doing that, it improves the quality of life for our residents throughout the unincorporated areas who are unlikely to either benefit from or utilize the rail system.

"Frankly, it provides those who live in the unincorporated areas a reason to even consider supporting the referendum."

And that's about two-thirds of the people who will be asked to vote on the question if it goes to the ballot.

Al Higginbotham, who represents a broad swath of the largely unincorporated areas of southern and eastern Hillsborough, answers to many of those people. Officially, he has said he has an open mind and will base his vote on what he hears from the public in the coming months.

He has already spoken or fielded questions at a half-dozen community meetings and has plans to attend a dozen more this month. And what he said he is hearing so far is a lot of concern.

"I'm hearing that people are strapped already financially and asking, 'Is this truly a tax that will boost us into prosperity?' " Higginbotham said.

Commissioner Jim Norman, who did not return phone calls seeking comment, has made it clear he is firmly in the "no" camp. He has generally fought tax increases and has said in public meetings that the timing of this one couldn't be worse, given the ailing economy.

He has also warned the other commissioners, who each have expressed support for posing the question to voters, that supporting the referendum will get them labeled as pro-tax.

That's something Norman knows well. He faced strong criticism for years as part of a majority that approved asking voters to decide a half-cent sales tax increase in 1996 to build Raymond James Stadium and also provide money for roads, jails and schools. He was repeatedly accused of raising taxes.

He was also part of a board majority that shelved a prior effort to build a rail system in Hillsborough after his predecessors approved seeking federal assistance.

Despite the importance of the matter, the county is making it hard to follow what's going on. An agenda item for Wednesday's meeting provides no background information on what will be discussed and what decision, if any, commissioners will be asked to make.

That angers Higginbotham, who frequently faults the county administration for providing information to commissioners too late for them to review. Commissioners previously have said they were expecting proposed ballot language to be presented at the meeting, but that won't happen.

"We've received nothing," he said. "I'm going to be very disappointed if we get something at the last minute."

Attempts to reach county staff late Thursday and Friday were unsuccessful. The county was closed Friday due to a budget-cutting furloughs.

Hagan said the task force recommendations will be presented. He anticipates the commission directing the county attorney to begin preparing a resolution that would lead to ballot language. Commissioners would be asked to approve ballot language later this year or early next. In the coming months, commissioners will debate specifics, such as what road projects would be pledged, where rail lines will go and who oversees them.

Sharpe said many players have been involved in shaping the recommendation, and said the process has been difficult to shepherd as a result.

"In spite of all the problems we've faced, we're going to be successful at getting this on the ballot," he said. "Voters will be able to debate this and decide it on the merit."

Bill Varian can be reached at varian@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3387.

Transit referendum question goes to Hillsborough County commissioners Wednesday 10/31/09 [Last modified: Saturday, October 31, 2009 11:40pm]

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