NEW PORT RICHEY — Like others in the Tampa Bay area, Pasco County is looking to Charlotte, N.C., for direction in developing a mass transit system.
A couple of county staffers and County Commissioner Michael Cox, also chairman of the county's transportation board, took a day trip to the Queen City recently with Hillsborough County officials and toured its light rail system.
They came away impressed.
The system features buses as well as rail and has free parking, no tickets to buy and no turnstiles to walk through. Instead, riders buy a pass and keep it with them as they use the system.
"They have transit police who ask to see your pass and if you don't have it you are removed and pay a $50 fine," Cox said Thursday at a meeting of the Metropolitan Planning Organization, the county's transportation board. "To me that seemed like a much better way of doing it."
Cox and Growth Management Administrator Richard Gehring described a system of clean, safe cars, copious lighting and even public art. Even water fountains were made to look chic.
They also marveled at the development that went up as a result of the system: high-end apartments and homes as well as commercial centers. The system was paid for by a half-cent sales tax voters approved in 1998.
Cox said the proponents had to change the same perception many Pasco residents have about public transportation: that it's for the poor.
"At the end of the day, you could see bankers getting on the bus," Cox said.
Gehring said Charlotte officials say ridership is strong.
"It's 10 years ahead of projections," he said.
Pasco is paying attention because Hillsborough is getting ready to embark on a sales tax campaign for light rail.
Pasco wants to do the same in 2018, with a sales tax taking effect in 2020. But now only counties with charter government may have referendums on the issue. Pasco, which does not have charter government, has asked the state Legislature to change that.
Cox said he hopes the county will be proactive in developing its own system. He fears anything developed by Tampa or Hillsborough will be skewed toward that area's best interest.
"We're trying to move rapidly to do things with economic development and get jobs in here, and we're serious about that," he said. If Pasco sits on its hands, the perception will persist that "we're a bedroom community."
"We all need to be up front that we can't allow Hillsborough County to expand up here unless we take care of our own system," Cox said.
Lisa Buie can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 909-4604.