CARROLLWOOD — Here's an irony of the public meetings now under way to discuss Hillsborough County's proposed 1 percent sales tax for mass transit and new road projects.
If officials were talking about a road widening affecting a handful of businesses or a single neighborhood, there might be a line out the door.
But talk about raising the sales tax and spending a couple of billion dollars on light rail, buses and roads, and the crowd is in the dozens, not the hundreds. At Gaither High School this month, it was about 50.
Still, "that's a very good turnout," county public works spokesman Steve Valdez said. It's harder to draw big crowds to meetings about big concepts, he said, but county officials hope to reach a lot of people to educate them about the proposal and learn what they think.
"We want to hear from you," Hillsborough public works director Bob Gordon told residents at Gaither. "What do you like about it? What don't you like about it?"
Officials have another meeting about the proposal scheduled at Freedom High School in New Tampa at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, as well as meetings the following week near the University of South Florida and in Temple Terrace. They will share what they hear with county commissioners, who are expected to shape and refine the proposal as it heads to voters.
In December, commissioners tentatively voted 5-2, with commissioners Jim Norman and Al Higginbotham in dissent, to hold a referendum on Nov. 2 on the idea.
Voters would decide whether to raise the county's sales tax by 1 cent on the dollar, to 8 percent. As proposed, the new tax would not have an expiration date.
The tax would generate an estimated $178 million a year, and 75 percent of it would go toward mass transit. Some would pay for a bigger, faster bus system. Much would be used to create at least two light-rail commuter trains.
The light rail project is a different project than the Tampa-to-Orlando high-speed rail initiative supported by President Barack Obama. One new light-rail line would link downtown Tampa to the University of South Florida area. Another would run between downtown and the West Shore district. Future lines could head to Brandon, South Tampa and northwest Hillsborough.
The remaining 25 percent of tax revenues would pay to expand or improve roads, intersections and trails.
At the Gaither meeting, the response was mixed.
"I'm against it completely," said Jeanne Gioanetti, 78, of Carrollwood. "This isn't New York where you can get off a train and get on a bus. This is a hick town that thinks they're big, but they're not.
"You don't need rail," she added. "You need roads. Real roads."
Others said mass transit is long overdue and would help business.
Carrollwood resident Don O'Hearn recalled the skepticism that rail advocates encountered when they started to create Washington, D.C.'s Metrorail lines.
Hillsborough officials seem to have put proposed light rail lines in good areas, said O'Hearn, 73, who spent 10 years in executive positions with Washington's metropolitan area transit authority. Rail would increase property values near stations and would foster controlled development, he said.
Another attendee, Elizabeth Strom, teaches about community development and transit as an associate professor of geography at the University of South Florida. She said she was encouraged to hear serious talk about mass transit. But, she noted, such discussions go back to the 1970s.
"If they'd actually built it then," she said, "imagine where we'd be now."
Richard Danielson can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3403.