TAMPA — Just two years ago, Hillsborough County voters convincingly rejected a proposed sales tax hike to pay for a major investment in transit, including commuter light rail.
But a new poll sponsored by the Tampa Bay Times, Bay News 9 and AM 820 News Tampa Bay suggests there is now support for using public money for light rail mass transit.
The poll found a comfortable majority of residents in Hillsborough County would support using tax money for light rail. The question had even stronger support in Pinellas County, where officials are pondering whether to place a referendum on public spending for mass transit on the 2014 ballot.
"I don't know many metropolitan areas this large that don't have something in the way of light rail," said Ron Hosner, 74, a retired schoolteacher from Redington Shores, who answered the poll conducted from Dec. 5 to 13. "I would love to see light rail and I would be willing to have my taxes spent on that.''
The poll results seem to run counter to conventional wisdom, particularly since voters in Hillsborough rejected that very proposition by a 58 to 42 percent margin in 2010. The poll, conducted by Braun Research, a national firm based in Princeton, N.J., found almost the opposite result in Hillsborough two years later.
Residents were asked: "Would you be supportive of spending public or tax money to bring light rail mass transit to parts of the Tampa Bay area?" In Hillsborough County, 56 percent of those surveyed said "yes," while 35 percent said "no," with 9 percent unsure or declining to answer.
The result in Pinellas County: 60 percent answered "yes" while 33 percent said "no," with the balance undecided or declining to answer.
Respondents originally from other places, such as Hosner, a transplant from Michigan, noted that the Tampa Bay region is behind the curve compared to other places its size. Invariably, they cited the value of rail as an option to ever-clogging roads. They credited it with spurring economic development and luring tourism and wondered whether its absence left the region at a competitive disadvantage in luring jobs.
Nadine Ellen Keris, 26, a resident of downtown Tampa who grew up in Boston and attended college in Atlanta, has seen the advantages of living in a city with rail firsthand, in two separate settings.
"It creates job opportunities and helps get people to jobs," she said. "It makes a city more accessible to tourists."
While women and people younger than 55 were more inclined to support investing public money in light rail, a majority of people older than 55 also responded "yes" to the poll question. And as with the 2010 ballot referendum, some respondents blended the light rail question before them with a separate, federal proposal to link Tampa to Orlando with high-speed rail that Gov. Rick Scott rejected.
Freda Flint, 67, who lives near downtown, moved to Tampa seven years ago from Philadelphia, commuting to a job with a cable company in Orlando before retiring.
"When I first came down here, I was kind of amazed at the lack of transit," Flint said. "Thank God my car didn't break down. With the tourists we have and the number of people moving here, I think we're 10 years behind the times."
Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn is supporting a proposal to allow Florida's largest cities to opt out of state rules requiring sales tax referendums be held countywide. The 2010 referendum won support in much of the city, particularly in neighborhoods near proposed rail lines.
He was buoyed by the poll results.
"That's great. That's a vast improvement over certainly the results of 2010, and I think it's a recognition that we need transit options and that rail should be one of them," Buckhorn said. "Particularly for the urban core, the cities, rail could be a huge economic engine."
Braun Research surveyed 521 people in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, and the results have a margin or error of 4.3 percentage points. The margin of error climbs to 6 and 6.2 percentage points in Pinellas and Hillsborough, respectively, for individual county results.
The pollsters surveyed the general population older than 18 rather than likely voters typically queried to predict likely election results. Another Times/Bay News 9 poll that did attempt to isolate likely voters before the 2010 referendum showed the transit measure passing 51 to 39 percent, which proved to be far off the mark.
Still, the more recent poll results do not seem out of whack to Ray Chiaramonte, director of the Hillsborough County Metropolitan Planning Organization, the county's transportation planning agency. His organization conducted its own poll this summer that queried 806 active voters in the county, asking a variety of questions about transportation.
Told it would cost the average family of three about $15 a month, 48 percent of respondents said they would support a 1 cent sales tax increase to pay for transportation generally. When asked about a half-cent sales tax increase, support climbed to 57 percent.
Nearly 70 percent of respondents said demonstration rail lines should be at least somewhat of a priority.
"The answer to your polling question doesn't seem that off to me," Chiaramonte said. "Most communities that do this, it takes them two or three times" to win public support.
In addition to the survey, the MPO organized focus groups for more dialogue among 200 participants. Chiaramonte said it is clear from those conversations that people need to feel like they will directly benefit if asked to pay more in taxes, with better roads or bus service, for instance, if they won't be near rail lines. Also, he said some participants felt like a demonstration project — one line, perhaps — to prove rail attracts riders might be an easier sell initially than a whole network.
Josh Burgin, a board member of public transportation agency Hillsborough Area Regional Transit, ran unsuccessfully in 2010 against incumbent county Commissioner Mark Sharpe, who had backed that year's transit referendum. He said many eastern Hillsborough residents like him felt they would never benefit had the 2010 referendum passed. And he said there is considerable public distrust, based on the county's last sales tax hike in 1996, that money will be spent as promised.
"Everyone is concerned about transportation," Burgin said. "If you talk to people around me, I'm absolutely sure they would talk about it in terms of roads and intersection improvements."
Earlier this month, a group calling itself Connect Tampa Bay announced it had formed to promote more options for transportation across the region, including rail. Kevin Thurman, a political consultant who is the group's executive director, said he believes the poll, combined with the survey results from the MPO, are showing a changing tide.
"I think that we definitely have a significant shift in opinion in the area and people are ready to have this discussion again," Thurman said.
Times staff writer Richard Danielson contributed to this report. Bill Varian can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3387.