Local political leaders owe the public a serious conversation about light rail in the Tampa Bay area. A new poll by the Tampa Bay Times, Bay News 9 and AM 820 News Tampa Bay shows that most residents in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties are either supportive or open to using tax money to build a light rail system. The poll numbers hardly make light rail a done deal, but they show residents recognize the need for a much more modern regional transportation system.
Fifty-eight percent of Pinellas and Hillsborough residents support using tax money to bring light rail mass transit to the Tampa Bay area. Two-thirds either support or are open to the plan, and 34 percent are opposed. While support is marginally higher in Pinellas, which is more densely populated than Hillsborough, the results are fairly uniform, reflecting the common interests in a region where tens of thousands of residents commute across county lines every day.
The findings are the latest snapshot since Hillsborough's failed transit referendum in 2010 that area residents want more and better choices for moving people and goods throughout the Tampa Bay area. Hillsborough's loss was partly self-inflicted; the rail line had no concrete routes or costs, and there was no clear time line for serving the suburbs. Still, even opponents said they wanted a new and more detailed proposal brought back to the table. A poll this summer by the county's transportation planning agency found that roughly half of those responding supported financing light rail, while two-thirds said that a demonstration rail line should be a local priority. The results are in keeping with other experiences around the country where rail typically requires two or three referendum votes to succeed.
The new poll does not erase many of the same hurdles that killed Hillsborough's 2010 effort. If anything, the findings point to the importance of having fixed routes and costs before going to the voters. The poll also surveyed the adult population in general — not likely voters — so it does not foreshadow the outcome of any voter referendums. Polls in the run-up to Hillsborough's 2010 referendum were all over the map.
Still, the Hillsborough effort clearly broke the ice. Residents are interested in continuing the dialogue on improving transit options, including building rail. They want regional service with better connectivity throughout the Tampa Bay area, and they are open to funding it through new taxes. These sentiments mark a positive climate as Pinellas County commissioners consider putting a transit package before voters in 2014. The poll also should embolden Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn to work on reprising a transit initiative that would strengthen the links to both sides of the bay. And the poll findings should also be seen as a sign of what voters want this time around — a workable plan with obvious benefits that makes the bay area more convenient and economically competitive.