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Angry enough to speak out // Business sends message on roads

Today, numerous Pasco business organizations plan to join together to try to send the governor a message about roads. Gov. Bob Martinez, they say, has told them he wants to hear the public say it is willing to pay higher taxes for roads before he'll consider any proposals to raise money. In response, the business community plans "T-day."

At clogged intersections, shopping centers and individual businesses in Pasco and other Tampa Bay counties, volunteers plan to offer petitions or hand out candy kisses and stamped postcards to the governor that say "Kiss traffic congestion goodbye." The goal for Pasco is 50,000 signatures in support of raising taxes for roads, according to Dara Khoyi, a developer and chairman of the Committee of 100's transportation subcommittee.

County Commissioner Ann Hildebrand is expecting success.

"It started out as a business issue, but I think you're seeing local residents speak of their frustration and I think there's a grass-roots effort being made on that," said Hildebrand, a director of the Pasco Committee of 100. "I think Tallahassee has said let us hear from (the public) and I think now those cards and letters are going to finally begin to come in."

Long time coming

For all their complaining about Pasco County roads over the past few years, local business people might as well have saved their breath and printed the message on their business cards.

The issues seemed unchanging: Existing roads are inadequate. The state is not providing money or a means for counties to raise money for road improvements. Through growth management, the state is planning to ban development on clogged state roads, without providing any plan to expand those roads.

The ramifications, according to the business people, are economic

suffocation, as a local economy based largely on growth is forced out of business.

Just as the complaints had become fairly routine, so had the means of expressing them to the governor and the Legislature. Before the legislative session and special session on transportation last year, a flurry of activity from local business organizations produced resolutions calling for passage of a gas tax and other taxes that would produce money for roads.

But those efforts didn't shake the governor's no-new-taxes position, and no plan for new road money was passed. But with T-day, the group is ready to try again.

"What was happening before is we were trusting in our Legislature and the wisdom of our governor to take care of the problem and for some reason or another it didn't happen," said Khoyi of the transportation subcommittee. "What I'm trying to do is take my case to the public and let the public show the governor and Legislature that the people are fed up."

Money talks

While Khoyi blames the governor and Legislature's recalcitrance on new road taxes on a lack of public outcry, he says some responsibility also falls on the business community's reluctance to withdraw support from the governor.

Resolutions issued by the Committee of 100 or a local chamber of commerce were easy to back without fear of any political ramifications for individual members. When it came to individuals withholding political or monetary support many business people were not so bold.

As explained by Paul Griffin, executive director of the Pasco Committee of 100, individuals were too worried about falling into disfavor with an incumbent governor who appears to have a good chance of being re-elected.

Whether Martinez was misusing his power or not, it was better to keep him as a friend than make him an enemy, Griffin explains. Even Khoyi, who is one of T-day's main organizers, still has not committed to helping Martinez's opposition in the next election.

But that reluctance robbed the business community of its best weapon, according to Griffin, and led to the governor's demand for a strong show of public opinion.

Whether the public is ready to pay for better roads will be easier to determine when all the T-day signatures are tallied up.

But if it fails, local developer Jerry Coone said members of the

development community are finally angry enough to risk making an enemy of the governor if there is no other way to get new roads built.

"A lot of them that have been past contributors are holding back their money and are saying, 'If I'm going to contribute, tell me what you're going to do,' " said Coone, a former president of the Florida Home Builders Association. "I've heard a lot of people say they're just not contributing this time around."