Saturday, February 24, 2018
Opinion

Ruth: Mike Suarez's quizzical ramblings on Hillsborough transit,

It is good to be king. It is also a very bad idea to annoy the king.

He may not quite realize it at the moment, but Tampa City Council Chairman Mike Suarez ought not to be too surprised if he suddenly discovers one day that his City Hall parking space has been moved to — Two Egg.

And that may be only the beginning of the price Suarez could pay for going so far off script with his recent ad-libbed mutterings about the future of Hillsborough County transportation needs.

During a meeting with the Tampa Bay Times editorial board in his capacity as chairman of the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit board, Suarez started thinking out loud. This is always a dangerous thing for a politician to do, since it involves, well, thinking, or the lack thereof.

Suarez was asked about the impending Greenlight Pinellas referendum set for the November ballot, which would create a 1-cent sales tax in that county to expand transit services, including a light rail line. The issue is contentious and by no means assured of passage.

But if voters approve the Greenlight Pinellas plan, Suarez was asked how that might impact a similar effort under way in Hillsborough County. If Greenlight passes in Pinellas, Hillsborough transit supporters want to seize upon that momentum to get a ballot measure before voters by 2016.

And that was right about where the HART chairman decided to become the grinch who stole the choo-choo. "If they are looking at 2016, I think the boat has sailed on that," Suarez said in a wonderful mixup of metaphors. "There's no way we're going to put out a referendum and get that kind of synergy that Greenlight (Pinellas) has."

The chairman then inaccurately mused that 2018 would be a better time frame since it would be a presidential year, which might suggest Suarez needs to brush up on his electoral calendar.

That muffled noise you might have heard were the collective heads of transit champions Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill, County Commissioner Mark Sharpe and local transit activist Kevin Thurman all exploding in unison.

There are a few lessons to be learned here, which Suarez will experience when he discovers his cushy leather City Council chair has been replaced with a Porta-Potty.

First, merely because one happens to be both chairman of City Council and the HART board, that should not be taken as encouragement to weigh in on stuff, especially if you are going to run the risk of annoying more powerful political figures who can turn your mayoral political ambitions into a thick, steaming pile of goo.

Buckhorn took time away from stroking his cat to not too subtly suggest Suarez could well find his City Hall office moved to Tikrit, noting: "2016 is very different. People are ready and expect leadership to provide some transit options," later adding: "I think two years is plenty of time to do the work and make the case to the public that there are significant benefits to a robust and vastly improved transportation network."

Translation: Suarez? Mike Suarez? Doesn't ring a bell.

Two-plus years would seem to be ample time to prepare a ballot initiative to offer voters a chance to weigh in on the future of the county's transit needs.

This much is certain: It will probably take Mike Suarez at least that long to grovel his way back into Bob Buckhorn's good graces.

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