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.
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 referendum persuade people in the far reaches of Hillsborough County, who won't see a rail line near their homes for decades if at all, to 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 to voters around the county, 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, proponents 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.
Plans call for making improvements to Pauls Drive and Lithia Pinecrest Road, doubling the size of the county bus fleet, adding neighborhood circulators and improving intersections.
And county residents won't have to wait decades for those improvements.
"Those things will happen immediately," Sharpe says. "Within five years."
The first two legs of the rail line connecting the University of South Florida to downtown Tampa and the West Shore business district won't be running until 2018. A line won't make it to Brandon until 2032.
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 ago to get it," he said.
With that in mind, the transportation task force recommended also using the tax to direct $170 million to widen Lithia Pinecrest Road, $25 million to improve U.S. 301, $30 million for Bell Shoals Road and $9 million for an all-purpose, off-road trail near the Little Manatee River.
"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 21-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," Bevers said in an interview.
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.
Terry Flott, president of the Seffner Community Alliance and chairwoman of the United Citizens Action Network, says her organizations don't yet have formal positions on the issue.
But personally, she has her radar focused on the Hillsborough County City-County Planning Commission's work on transit-oriented development. That will determine how land around transit stations is developed.
Flott wants to know how far out from the stations the high-density developments will stretch into Seffner, which is sandwiched between a proposed local rail line and high-speed rail on Interstate 4.
In the end, she said, it's still a development issue for people who have long fought road and subdivision construction to maintain the rural feel of their neighborhoods.
"There's still a lot of selling that's going to have to be done," she said. "I have mixed emotions about it."
Hugh Gramling, who lives in Plant City, says the rail concept intrigues him. But he wants to see budget numbers, routes and connections with reliable buses.
"If they build it, they're not necessarily going to come," he said. "There's going to have to be some way to change people's attitudes about public transportation. That has to be part of the action plan."
Sam Rashid, a Republican power broker who lives in Valrico and owns businesses in Plant City and Brandon, said he wants to see improvements to the county's transportation systems, and possibly even rail.
But he would prefer to see Hillsborough work with surrounding counties to develop a regional plan for building and funding rail.
And he doesn't like the sales tax, calling it "misguided."
Rashid would rather see the county extend the community investment tax beyond its 2025 sunset date to pay for transportation upgrades. A new sales tax, he said, will simply take money out of the pockets of consumers at a time when the economy is struggling.
"This whole premise of rail right now is a compromise between what I call the rail purists that say something's better than nothing and the interests that are going to make money off the quick development," he said. "It's going to be a Christmas basket for developers."
Kelso Tanner, a Republican political consultant who lives in Gibsonton, said he needs to learn more about the plan before he decides how he will vote.
But with some of the money dedicated to road improvement in and around Brandon, the tax has some appeal to him.
"If it was all 100 percent rail," he said. "I think it would be a nonstarter for a lot of people."
Janet Zink can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3401.