Editor's note: A different version of this column appeared in the April 18 Pasco Times. Here is the column intended for our Pasco County readers:
Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio could use another partner.
Right now, she's paired with Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe. She's looking across Tampa Bay for someone in Pinellas County, preferably a like-minded big-city mayor and a county commissioner.
To the north, Pasco County has no large city, but she knows there has to be someone to fill a similar role.
The role is leader. The topic is mass transit. The groups to be led are the voters, and the question to be asked, later this year in Hillsborough County and in future years in Pinellas and Pasco, is this: Are you willing to add a penny-on-the-dollar sales tax to expand bus service and to build and operate a light rail system?
It's a no-brainer to the mayor of Tampa, who visited the Times editorial board last week.
''I think rail is a great four-letter word,'' said Iorio, just 11 months before term limits send her out of City Hall after eight years.
In Pasco, her vision is mirrored by Ann Hildebrand's. Count her in. In fact, the 26-year county commissioner has started laying the foundation for the public dialogue. In her role as the county's representative to the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority, she is the top local cheerleader for mass transit.
I listened to and wrote about one of Hildebrand's speaking engagements in November when she addressed a West Pasco Chamber of Commerce luncheon. The response was nearly unanimously positive, the exception being a nay-saying letter to the editor a few days later.
Her message hasn't changed.
"I tell people we're going to have to step up,'' she said this week. "We're going to have to put money on the table.''
Hildebrand and Iorio do differ on their projected time lines, however. The mayor sees Pinellas County as the next link, plus the need for state financial assistance, to carry light rail from West Shore across the bay to the Gateway area of Pinellas.
Hildebrand contends Pasco will be next in line for the light rail after Hillsborough.
Somebody has to be first to the Hillsborough connection, says Hildebrand, so why not Pasco? She looks at the logistics. Taking light rail lines north from the University of South Florida through New Tampa to the Wiregrass Ranch area of Wesley Chapel will be easier than crossing a body of water on elevated rail lines paralleling the Howard Franklin Bridge.
Of course, all this is speculative at the moment since other area pols are watching for the outcome of the Hillsborough referendum in November. In the meantime, Pasco needs state legislative approval to even put the transit tax question to voters since it is not a charter county. There also is the anticipated request to ask voters to renew the Penny for Pasco sales tax —currently used for schools, roads, public safety and environmental land preservation — before it expires at the end of 2014.
Clearly, though, this question will be asked, though it could be eight years away. The county's long-range transportation plan calls for a transit tax by 2020, and some of today's land planning decisions are based on the concept of higher density near future mass transit stops.
If Hillsborough voters approve a sales tax increase in November, don't expect to see the trains for eight years, Iorio said. However, what will be coming within the first few years is an expanded and better bus service including express buses stretching from Sun City Center to New Tampa and so-called Flex routes providing continuous service, with shuttle vans rather than full-sized buses, within specific geographic areas.
The same would hold true for Pasco. Rail service to Wesley Chapel would not be immediate, but better bus serve would come significantly sooner.
A penny sales tax for mass transit, incidentally, would be collected in perpetuity to help finance operating costs. Hillsborough already collects a half-mill in property taxes for HART. Pasco has no such tax and some of its Pasco County Public Transportation operations are financed via general revenue. That's why the system contracted this year despite a fare increase and why expansions have been delayed as the county continues to wrestle with balancing its budget amid dwindling resources.
It is well understood that money is tight. It's also understood that time is money. Imagine the savings then if we had other options besides spending so many hours dodging other motorists on State Road 54 or sitting in stalled traffic on the interstate or Bruce B. Downs Boulevard.