Tampa's hope to hold city-only transit referendum dies in the Legislature

Tampa's hope to hold a city-only tax referendum dies in the Legislature.
Published May 3 2013
Updated May 4 2013

TAMPA — It was a long shot from the start, and now Tampa's hope to hold its own transit tax referendum is dead for the year.

The proposal was a top legislative priority for Tampa, where Mayor Bob Buckhorn wants his own shot at passing the kind of transit tax proposal that three years ago failed county-wide while winning precincts inside the city.

"It just never saw the light of day," Buckhorn said. "It's unfortunate, because that really could have given us an opportunity to jump-start this process."

Going into this year's legislative session, the idea was supported by the Urban Partnership, which consists of the mayors of Tampa, St. Petersburg, Orlando, Miami, Hialeah, Jacksonville and Fort Lauderdale.

But it never picked up a sponsor willing to file a bill. Still, Buckhorn said the city and its lobbyist saw a glimmer of hope in a House transportation subcommittee.

"We thought we had some momentum to do an amendment on the transportation bill, and we had some folks lined up to be supportive of it," he said. "Then, all of a sudden in the midnight hours, I think someone drove a stake through its heart."

Rep. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, said he was lobbied on the idea "a little bit," including by St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster. He said he doesn't know what happened to it, but noted that "the position in Tallahassee by leadership is not to raise taxes."

"I can appreciate that," Fasano said, but added he doesn't see any reason why voters shouldn't have a chance to consider a proposal "as long as it was a local referendum and the voters would make the decision themselves."

While disappointed, Buckhorn said "you can absolutely count" on the city trying again next year.

In the meantime, Buckhorn has hopes for transit assistance in the next several years from Washington, D.C. For one thing, President Barack Obama's administration already has been good to Tampa, awarding:

• $10.9 million to finish the Riverwalk.

• $105 million to help build the high-rise connector bridge from Interstate 4 to the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway.

• $30 million to help develop Encore Tampa — a 12-block urban redevelopment project with apartments, condominiums, stores and offices — where the Central Park Village public housing complex used to stand.

And last month, outgoing U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood brought a national bike safety summit to Tampa.

Although Florida Gov. Rick Scott rejected $2.4 billion for high-speed rail from Tampa to Orlando, Buckhorn said he believes the Obama administration hasn't given up on mass transit in Florida.

"Secretary LaHood asked me the other day when he was down here," Buckhorn said. "I think they are still very interested in participating and helping in some type of mass transit here in Florida. We just have to find, literally and figuratively, the vehicle to do it, and that's a perfect TIGER grant application."

TIGER stands for Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery, and is the kind of grant the city won to finish the Riverwalk. The program is meant to support difficult-to-finance projects with significant impacts that at least cover a metropolitan area.

"I'm sure there will be some TIGER money available in next year's round (of grants), and at that point, mass transit will be a little further down the road," Buckhorn said. For now, he said, "I don't want to be greedy, and I don't want to burn my relationships and overburden my friendships without a legitimate ask."

One of those friendships is with the man nominated to be LaHood's successor, Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx.

Buckhorn got to know Foxx well when both their cities were getting ready to host last year's national political conventions. On April 26, he called Foxx after hearing that Foxx had said he wouldn't seek another term, but Foxx volunteered little about his plans. When Buckhorn, who had heard some speculation about the transportation job, asked what was going on in Washington, Foxx told him, "I can't talk about it."

Three days later, Obama announced Foxx's nomination, and the White House held a conference call with mayors nationwide to talk about ways they could help the nomination. After the call, Buckhorn put out a statement saying Foxx "understands the important connection between mobility and economic development."

In Foxx's four years as mayor, Charlotte has started a streetcar project to bring electric tram service to its downtown, expanded its airport and launched an extension of its light rail system.

"He'll be a good friend to the mayors around the country," Buckhorn said, "which is good."

Richard Danielson can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3403.