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Pasco commissioner Ann Hildebrand touts benefits of tax for mass transit

It is never too early to begin a campaign.

Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty is scheduled to be in Iowa this weekend, 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee Sara Palin is raising money for a political action committee and making congressional race endorsements and CNN reported former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has made more than 45 political appearances and finished writing a book over the past 10 months.

Their goal (stated, or otherwise) is the 2012 presidential election.

Turns out, they've got nothing on Ann Hildebrand. The Republican Pasco Commissioner campaigned Monday for a vote that could be five to 10 years away, an eternity for a 71-year-old commissioner in her 25th year in office. It's not her own political future she's championing, it's the future of the region. It's tied to mass transit and it's not free.

"We're going to have to put money on the table,'' Hilderand told a West Pasco Chamber of Commerce luncheon audience.

The money is likely to be a one-cent-on-the-dollar sales tax to finance Pasco's share of a 25-year, $25 billion mass transit plan connecting Citrus to Sarasota counties. Plans include express bus routes running along the Suncoast Parkway to the West Shore area of Tampa, managed traffic lanes along Interstate 75, short-distance rail connecting the Wiregrass Ranch area of Wesley Chapel to Tampa and eventually commuter rail along the CSX lines from Brooksville through Pasco County and to points southward.

Hildebrand is Pasco's representative to the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transit Authority, TBARTA, the group formed to design and run the system. TBARTA approved the long-range plan in May, now comes work by Hildebrand and like-minded leaders to try to finance it.

Contrast that full-speed-ahead sentiment from the commissioner turned cheerleader to the horse-and-buggy position of a commissioner in a neighboring county who wants to represent large portions of Pasco County in the state senate.

Hillsborough Commissioner Jim Norman last week dissented when his county commission agreed, on a 5-2 vote, to a resolution seeking a 2010 referendum on a transit sales tax. Norman is running for the District 12 Senate seat stretching along the State Road 54/56 corridor from Odessa to Wesley Chapel — essentially the area of the county most likely to benefit when rapid bus systems and light rail reach Pasco County.

Obviously, there is no long-term vision when your eye is focused only on Election Day 2010.

Hildebrand's focus is Election Day 2014 or maybe 2012 or 2018. The county's long-term transit plan calls for the surtax by 2020. The date is up in the air, but not the support. Hildebrand is for it just as she was the Penny for Pasco sales tax in 2004 that produced money for schools, roads, public safety and land preservation. That campaign, she said, earned her more enemies than friends.

Monday afternoon, she spoke to a friendly gathering. The audience members who spoke embraced the idea of mass transit, though they did ask if other revenues sources — user fees, bond issues, or even a mass transit license plate — might help defray the cost.

"We're going to have to have a sales tax in place,'' she said, "We just can't sit there with our hand out for stimulus money.''

Several in the audience told of relying on mass transit in their previous homes, notably to travel to sporting and cultural events. Joe Alpine, president of the chamber, recalled riding the mass transit rails to see baseball and hockey games in his hometown of Cleveland.

"I truly believe we need to do this now,'' said Alpine.

The personal endorsement is welcome, particularly since the chamber declined to take a position during the public debate over the Penny for Pasco. The chamber would be wise not to sit this one out considering the economic development and job creation opportunities tied to an efficient mass transit system.

And the debate may intensify sooner rather than later. If the Hillsborough voters approve its tax in 2010, Hildebrand predicted Pasco would be next in line to partner.

"It's not going to be a cheap deal to go. It's going to cost big bucks,'' she said, "But, how much is your time worth? How much is the environment worth?''

Pasco commissioner Ann Hildebrand touts benefits of tax for mass transit 11/10/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 10, 2009 4:59pm]
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