TAMPA — After a generation of political debate, Hillsborough County voters will finally get a chance to decide on commuter rail.
A 5-2 majority of the Hillsborough County Commission approved a ballot question Thursday night that will ask voters in November if they support raising the sales tax by a penny to pay for rail, buses and roads.
"Yes, it's been a lot of years," said Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio, an ardent supporter who has pursued rail since shortly after she began her 26-year political career on the same commission. "But tonight is certainly gratifying."
Roughly 400 people showed up for the public hearing at the All People's Life Center auditorium in East Tampa. The common theme from those who spoke to commissioners: Give the people a choice.
"Let us decide," said resident Andrea Braboy, a sentiment repeated throughout the evening.
After three hours of public comment, commissioners explained themselves one-by-one, before taking a series of votes that made it official. As Mark Sharpe spoke, it became clear that supporters had the majority needed. Applause erupted.
"It's time to move forward with an effort to grow our economy and address our transportation needs," said Sharpe, a leading champion of the referendum.
Commission Chairman Ken Hagan, whose transportation task force recommended the referendum, reiterated his own misgivings with the effort, saying he does not support rail.
Nevertheless, Hagan said, he supports giving the public a chance to be heard. "I do support listening," he said. "I do support the ballot box."
Commissioners Al Higginbotham and Jim Norman voted against the measure, reiterating the stances they've taken throughout the most recent debate over rail.
"Let me say to you in a heartfelt way, I feel this plan is a terrible plan," Norman said.
"This is the wrong time to put a 1-cent sales tax on a community that is losing their houses, losing their jobs."
The proposal, if approved, is projected to bring in from $160 million to $200 million annually by raising the current sales tax from 7 cents on the dollar to 8 cents. Of that, 75 percent would go toward building the first two legs of a commuter rail system and doubling the bus fleet and expanding its service. The rest would go toward roads.
One leg of the rail system would link downtown Tampa with the University of South Florida area. The other would connect downtown and the West Shore business district. The downtown hub would also connect with the planned high-speed train line between Tampa and Orlando.
Thursday's public hearing drew unlikely allies, as representatives of the Sierra Club donned green shirts along with members of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce and other business groups in support of the referendum.
Supporters ranged from students to those who acknowledged that their children and grandchildren will likely benefit most.
Describing himself as a conservative Republican, Patrick Leduc urged commissioners to support the referendum as a means of saving future generations from clogged roads and no means to widen them.
"We have to do this," Leduc said. "We have no choice."
Activist Gerald White urged commissioners to "do it for the children, do it for your future," before rousing the crowd, "If you're with me say, 'Yeah!'"
Opponents — many of whom arrived early and left before the commission voted — wore red, some black. They sounded a variety of themes, though one in particular was prevalent: This is the worst time propose new taxes.
"Economics 101 dictates that in a recession you don't raise taxes," said Sharon Calvert.
Many in the con camp lived in suburban areas of the county far from the proposed rail corridors.
They objected to paying more taxes for something they said they are unlikely to use and argued that details on how the money will be spent are lacking.
"There is no financial plan," said Stacy Feiler of Brandon. "It's like fluff."