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Is Tampa ready to pay for light rail?

Bus rapid transit uses buses or specialized vehicles, fewer stops and dedicated lanes to bypass traffic and get to destinations more quickly than traditional buses. The buses came to Tampa so planners could see how they might operate here.

Hillsborough Area Regional Transit

Bus rapid transit uses buses or specialized vehicles, fewer stops and dedicated lanes to bypass traffic and get to destinations more quickly than traditional buses. The buses came to Tampa so planners could see how they might operate here.

For 20 years, community leaders have talked about bringing light rail to Hillsborough County.

Never have they asked voters if they are willing to tax themselves to help pay for it.

Until now.

The Hillsborough County Commission is likely to place that question on the ballot in November 2010.

Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio, a county commissioner back in 1986 when the first discussions of rail began, makes no bones about the significance of the measure.

"This referendum is probably one of the most important decisions that Hillsborough County voters will make," she said at a Brandon Chamber of Commerce luncheon last month.

But how will Iorio and other backers of the proposal convince people in the far reaches of Hillsborough County, such as New Tampa, Carrollwood and Town 'N Country? They won't see a rail line near their homes for decades, if at all. Will they vote in favor of a 1-cent sales tax in the midst of a devastating economic downturn?

There's no doubt, it's a "tough sell," said Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe, who along with Iorio is one of the most vocal proponents of the tax.

As both make their cases, they talk in general about clogged roads, job creation, development around transit stations and protecting the environment.

If nothing else, "do it for the kids," Sharpe said at the Brandon Chamber meeting. "I'm really hopeful that we'll all step up and do the right thing."

Specifically, though, supporters also play up the nonrail projects that could be supported with some of the $174 million a year that the Metropolitan Planning Organization figures the tax will generate.

Proposed plans call for possibly using the money to widen Cross Creek Boulevard, extend Citrus Park Drive, double the size of the county bus fleet and add neighborhood circulators and bus rapid transit systems.

And county residents won't have to wait decades for those improvements.

"Those things will happen immediately," Sharpe says. "Within the first five years."

The first two legs of the rail line connecting the University of South Florida to downtown Tampa and the WestShore business district won't be running until 2018.

Ken Hagan, chairman of the Hillsborough County Commission and creator of the county's transportation task force, pushed to get one-quarter of the penny tax dedicated to nontransit funding.

"Consultants will tell you that only 4 to 8 percent of residents will ride the rail system or will have to wait 20 or 30 years to get it," he said.

With that in mind, the transportation task force recommended also using the tax to direct $58.2 million to widen Bruce B. Downs Boulevard, $25 million to improve U.S. 301, and $5 million to extend the Upper Tampa Bay Trail.

"Those are all examples of projects that I feel need to be included to give our residents throughout the unincorporated areas a reason to consider supporting something like this," Hagan said.

Some county residents will need little convincing in the next year.

Iorio has a 2-inch thick stack of letters and e-mails from people in Ruskin, Land O'Lakes, Lutz, and Sun City Center as well as New Port Richey, Wesley Chapel and St. Petersburg commending her for her efforts to bring rail to the region.

Ruskin resident Don Bevers, 60, sent one of those notes, sharing his good experiences with mass transit when he lived in New Jersey.

"It was such a convenience that when I eventually moved to Florida, I was surprised to see the lack of such a commuter system," he said.

Now retired, he said even though he may never ride it, he'd be happy to a pay a penny more in sales taxes to pay for rail.

"I don't think that's going to hurt too much," he said. "For such a benefit to the area I think that is so reasonable."

Others are more skeptical.

Mark Snellgrove, president, of the Carrollwood Civic Association, predicted it will be hard to persuade people in his neighborhood to support a new tax.

"I don't care how you slice it," he said. "This is a very difficult time to be talking about that."

And people in Carrollwood don't want higher-volume roads and have little use for buses.

"It's just tough in our present condition to vote for an increase of any type of tax," he said. "If we were one of the beneficiaries, maybe. But Carrollwood isn't going to be one of those beneficiaries."

Bill Browne, chairman of the Town 'N Country Alliance, also gives the tax a big thumbs down.

As it is, he said, the county doesn't have enough money for such basics as law enforcement and parks.

"There are too many other things that need to be done first," Browne said. "I just don't see where they get the chutzpah to even suggest something like this."

As someone who grew up in New York City, he said he knows what an effective public transportation system looks like.

"I just don't see Hillsborough County as being set up for this," he said. "I don't see how they could make it work, not in my lifetime in any event."

Janet Zink can be reached at jzink@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3401.

Is Tampa ready to pay for light rail? 11/05/09 [Last modified: Thursday, November 5, 2009 3:30am]

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