NEW TAMPA — For the past month, members of a grass roots campaign traveling throughout the county to drum up support for a penny sales tax referendum have been greeted with nodding heads and smiling faces.
At the New Tampa Library on Wednesday night, the tone was markedly different.
About half of the two dozen people who attended the informational meeting expressed outrage over the tax, saying the light rail that will come with the tax's passage is not the answer to the area's transportation woes.
They came from as far south as Apollo Beach and as far west as Carrollwood to disapprove of the initiative, which they felt would not benefit them.
Former U.S. Rep. Jim Davis and Chuck Sykes, president and chief executive of Sykes Enterprises and chairman of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce — two of the campaign's biggest advocates — tried to convince opponent otherwise.
They got nods from proponents who said Tampa is far behind other metropolitan cities because it lacks an effective transportation system. And they tried to temper feelings of outrage from opponents.
"I thought it was very constructive," Davis said. "We've been to meetings with 60 people, and it was very quiet. I think it's very exciting."
Those against the measure argued that they shouldn't have to pay for light rail that they felt would not be used.
"Rail is such a loser, it only runs at a loss," said John Hendrix of Carrollwood.
Sharon Calvert of Lutz called light rail ineffective and questioned whether it benefits the regional economy.
But members of the campaign, Moving Hillsborough Forward, say it's not all about rail. It's about road improvements and a beefed-up bus system, too.
The countywide measure would let voters decide whether to raise the sales tax by one penny to fund major investments in bus, rail and roads, with revenue protected in a trust fund.
Light rail will bring jobs, boost the local economy, improve the quality of life and change the perception of Tampa as a tough city to get around in, Sykes said.
"We must be enablers for building the community," Sykes said. "We've got to start making things happen."
Tampa City Council member Joseph Caetano, who lives in New Tampa and was at the meeting, said residents in this northeastern pocket of the county are split on the measure.
"I hear a lot of negative, but I also hear a lot of 'I can't take these roads anymore,' " Caetano said. "I can't say if I'm going to vote for it or not. But we do need some type of relief."
And the pain will just be compounded in years to come if nothing is done now, said Bob Fiallo, who lives in Wesley Chapel's Seven Oaks community.
"I may not live to see light rail, but it's about what it's going to do for my kids and my grandkids," Fiallo said. "It's important to look at the overall picture."
Dong-Phuong Nguyen can be reached at (813)909-4613 or [email protected]