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Tampa mayor seeks regional partners to develop transit options

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. Commissioner Ann Hildebrand is volunteering.

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, Pasco and Hernando, is this: Are you willing to add a penny-on-the-dollar sales tax to expand bus service and to build and operate a rail system?

It's a no-brainer to the mayor of Tampa who visited the Times editorial board four days ago.

''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.

Pending voter approval, rail in the future — still eight years away — is light rail, the kind to take people from the University of South Florida to West Shore with eventual links to the Gateway area of Pinellas County and the Wiregrass Ranch area of Wesley Chapel in Pasco County.

Rail to Hernando County, however, means something else: Commuter rail. Moving people, most likely along the existing CSX lines, from Brooksville to destinations south where they could connect to light rail, buses or other mass transit service in Tampa. That is a component of the long-term plan developed by Tampa Bay Area Regional Transit Authority. The plan also includes express buses running on the Suncoast Parkway, State Road 50 and Interstate 75 connecting Citrus and Hernando counties to points southward.

Clearly, the transit network is a ways away. But, clearly, too, Hernando will need a leader to jump start a public dialogue that — no matter what the topic — too frequently is drowned out by the no-new tax sentiment.

Commissioner David Russell, Hernando's representative to TBARTA, said such a conversation might be 10 years away; a conversation that will be triggered by the economy, growth and the demand from riders seeking transit opportunities to and from Hernando. (Contrast that to Pasco where Hildebrand already is making public pitches for a sales tax increase and believes her county could leapfrog Pinellas to be the first to connect to Hillsborough's light rail system.)

"There is a lot that is being driven by the times,'' said Russell. "The whole anti-tax, no-new tax thing. Even the Legislature is no-new taxes. We're frankly swimming upstream.''

He didn't mention his own election-year, no-tax-increase stance has added to the doggie paddling. He is not alone. TBARTA was unable to build consensus to support a bill in Tallahassee giving its non-charter counties (Citrus, Hernando, Pasco and Manatee) the ability to even ask voters for a transit tax at some point in the future.

Other decisions are just as concerning. The Hernando Commission contracted its bus service for budget reasons, declined to discuss a proposed gasoline tax increase for road construction and, perhaps most troubling, a three-person majority that excluded Russell green-lighted a comprehensive plan amendment application paving the way for Quarry Preserve. It is to be a new city six miles north of the city of Brooksville that will add traffic congestion and is counterproductive to transit-oriented developments that seek higher densities near mass transit stations.

Brooksville Mayor Lara Bradburn, a member of the Florida Metropolitan Planning Organization Advisory Council, frets about Hernando's inability or unwillingness to better plan for future mass transit expansion.

"We're going to need it. Roads are clogged. We can't keep up,'' said Bradburn who, like others, points to mass transit as a key to the region's economic competitiveness.

"How can we have a strong economy if we can't get to work?''

Good question.

It's why Iorio is on the lookout for leaders to help provide the answer.

Tampa mayor seeks regional partners to develop transit options 04/17/10 [Last modified: Friday, April 16, 2010 9:34pm]
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