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Voter rejection not the end of the line, Hillsborough rail supporters say

TAMPA — Transit tax supporters in Hillsborough County say voters' rejection of the issue Tuesday is not the end of the line.

But that's about as far as they go, saying they need to study results of the vote in detail and figure out what it tells them. They say this simply marks the beginning of a renewed discussion in the community about how to address Hillsborough's future transportation challenges.

"We still have congestion issues," said David Singer, director of the group Moving Hillsborough Forward, which raised nearly $1.6 million to promote the rail cause. "So the job moving forward is figuring out how we form a new plan."

Could that lead to a future initiative without light rail? A different money source besides an additional sales tax? A more regional approach?

That's hard to say, backers say, adding that they are not yet operating under any time line, such as the 2012 elections.

Supporters continued to blame Tuesday's loss on the dismal economy, saying it is an exceedingly difficult time to ask voters to tax themselves further. The region's deep unemployment and uncertain prospects for recovery undoubtedly affected many voters' views of the issue and will color the debate in the near term.

A quick review of the results offers other factors to digest.

Backers of the measure took pains to say the plan put before voters was not just about rail. It called for raising the sales tax by a penny to pay for rail, expanded bus service and roads.

Election results show the question did best, however, in precincts along or close to proposed rail lines. That was particularly true in the working-class and heavily minority districts along the proposed north-south route. It also held true in South Tampa, where the ballot question was soundly rejected, except in a few precincts next to a proposed future spur of the rail line.

The rub: Voters who thought they might get rail voted for it.

"That's telling us something," said Bob Clifford, executive director of the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority. "I don't know what it is. There's something there we all need to look at and figure out what it means."

Ed Turanchik, a former county commissioner and longtime rail advocate who is running for mayor of Tampa, said there are alternatives to light rail that are cheaper and would serve people in outlying areas who largely voted against the transit tax.

"I think this is the right effort, but with the wrong plan and bad timing," he said. "I think it was too city-centric. We just need to be clever about doing this. Thinking more regionally, or countywide, is going to be important."

A Pinellas County task force is due to present a recommendation Nov. 15 on whether to pursue a transit referendum there. Ronnie Duncan, a former Pinellas commissioner who is chairman of TBARTA, said officials in Hillsborough need to treat the discussion with some urgency, noting that many transit initiatives fail the first time.

"You've got to have these discussions now. You can't wait 18 months from now, and say that would be cool," Duncan said.

In the immediate term, Hillsborough Area Regional Transit, the county's bus agency that would have run the rail system, has to decide whether to finish its analysis of prospective rail routes. It must determine whether to spend $15 million in federal, state and local tax money on preliminary engineering.

"They have to determine if there is merit" to proceed, HART executive director David Armijo said of his board of directors.

And while light rail was expected to serve passengers of planned high-speed rail coming from Orlando, Armijo said HART now expects to help those people get to places such as Tampa International Airport and Busch Gardens by bus.

Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio, a leading supporter of mass transit who leaves office after March, has previously said she would work to pursue another referendum in 2012 if Tuesday's vote failed. She backed off that assertion Wednesday.

"The next step is up to the next group of political leadership," Iorio said. "I care about this issue and am willing to help. But I'm exiting my public role and this issue goes beyond that."

Times staff writer David DeCamp contributed to this report. Bill Varian can be reached at (813) 226-3387 or varian@sptimes.com.

Lawmaker: Review Florida rail project

U.S. Rep. John Mica, the Winter Park Republican and rail advocate in line to head the House Transportation Committee, said Wednesday he may try to revisit how $10 billion for high-speed rail projects, including the Tampa-Orlando line, is being spent. He said the Northeast is probably the only region with a population density great enough to financially support high-speed rail. He suggested possibly scaling back the Florida project to the Orlando airport, theme parks and tourist destinations in that area.

Associated Press

Voter rejection not the end of the line, Hillsborough rail supporters say 11/03/10 [Last modified: Thursday, November 4, 2010 8:31am]

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