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Tampa Bay residents support high-speed train, but not light rail

At 74, Mike Suhoza wants a high-speed train to run from Tampa to Orlando.

Free of Interstate 4 traffic, he would visit Disney World with his nine grandchildren, or see their youth soccer games — maybe riding four times a year.

"I think we should have had this a long time ago," said Suhoza, a semi-retiree from Clearwater.

But his support doesn't extend to trains on his home turf of Pinellas County if it means paying a higher sales tax.

That resistance dogs advocates of light rail in Tampa Bay — even as public support lifts hopes that Gov.-elect Rick Scott will green-light the high-speed lines.

The mostly federally-funded high-speed rail line won support from 57 percent of Hillsborough and Pinellas county residents, according to a poll of 600 adults conducted Dec. 8 to 14 for the St. Petersburg Times and Bay News 9. The margin of error was 4 percentage points.

Meanwhile, somewhat under half of those same residents said they would oppose taxing themselves to pay for a local light rail system.

The results come as Scott questions whether he'll reject the federal project. About $2.4 billion of its cost will come from federal money, and roughly $280 million from the state. Trains were due to start rolling in 2015.

Like a few other recently elected Republicans, Scott has questioned the justification for the project and the costs borne by the state.

But in Tampa Bay, only 28 percent of residents opposed the high-speed train, and 16 percent were undecided, the poll said.

"As long as we don't have to pay for it (locally), I think it's going to be a great thing," said Odessa accountant Mary Lou Smythe, 51. She thinks the line will save gas money and reduce wear on cars.

Smythe voted against the Hillsborough light-rail sales tax in November, though she said she is reconsidering her decision. The area needs jobs, she said, and a rail system might relieve congestion.

"The longer I think about it, and what it would do, I would change my mind for one penny of sales tax," she said.

Jim Chambers, 74, a Tampa retiree, said the rail system proposed in November's election should have gone into areas where people commute to downtown for work, such as the Dale Mabry corridor, Westchase and New Tampa.

"That rail system was not expansive enough into the areas where the rail system has to be," he said. "If it doesn't track the main arteries into downtown Tampa, then it's wrong."

In Pinellas, 43 percent of the 300 residents polled indicated they supported increasing the sales tax to pay for transportation improvements. Of the remainder, 44 percent opposed it, and the rest were unsure.

"I think our sales tax is already 7 percent. I don't want it to be 8 percent," Suhoza said. "At my age, it would benefit my children and grandchildren more than it would me."

By contrast, high-speed rail doesn't involve voting for a local tax increase — even if people are still paying for it — and has a splashier feel.

"The high-speed rail sounds more exciting. It's a lot sexier than the local, slow rail — people aren't sure where it would go," said Paul Bedinghaus, former chairman of the Pinellas Republican Party.

While Hillsborough voters solidly rejected the transportation sales tax on Nov. 2 — only 42 percent voted for it — the poll showed 48 percent of people supported it. (The margin of error was 5.7 percentage points for each county.)

The difference isn't as offbeat as it appears, said Scott Paine, a government professor at the University of Tampa. Conservatives turned out in high numbers on Election Day. Plus, he said, the Times/Bay News 9 poll wasn't limited to registered voters, but taken of all adults, which broadens the base.

A post-election poll for the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority showed a similar reversal from the actual election results.

But there's certainly a well of opposition in both counties, fueled by conservatives questioning the costs, the taxes and the actual use of the trains.

"It's just too much money," said Dyan Pollock, 66, of Dunedin.

Even light-rail supporters have caveats.

Kelly Cooper, 39, a single mom in St. Petersburg, said she'd support the sales tax increase for rail — but only for rail.

As it stands, the tax increase also would pay for more buses and street improvements, a potential impediment to winning the support of Cooper and others.

The results suggest supporters of the regional systems need to do a better job of showing the value of rail, said Ronnie Duncan, chairman of TBARTA. "I don't think we made a very good case for the Hillsborough referendum."

Another supporter, Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe said there are still "legitimate questions" about how a local light-rail system would look and connect to the high-speed line.

"Light rail has greater benefits for our community than high-speed rail," Duncan said. "It gets down to who's paying the check."

Editor's note: This story was changed to reflect the following correction: Less than half of residents surveyed in a recent St. Petersburg Times/Bay News 9 poll said they would oppose a tax to pay for a local light rail system. A story Dec. 25 incorrectly reported the result.

David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8779.



By the numbers: Hillsborough rail

A December poll of Hillsborough residents asked why they supported or opposed a sales tax supporting transportation and light rail. With margin of error of 8.5 percentage points, here were their answers:

Opponents

Against new taxes 43%

Won't use, no benefit 14%

Costs too much 12%

Don't like rail, mass transit 9%

Supporters

Important, benefits us 27%

Improves roads 16%

Improve economy 10%

Improves congestion 9%

Source: Interviews by American Directions Group

Tampa Bay residents support high-speed train, but not light rail 12/24/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 29, 2010 6:28pm]

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