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Toll road finalist jabs at light rail

At a time when more leaders in Tampa Bay are talking about light rail, one finalist to temporarily run Tampa's troubled toll road agency has some choice words on such a proposal.

In a letter posted Nov. 29 on HawaiiReporter.com, Marty Stone, a finalist for interim executive director of the Tampa-Hillsborough Expressway Authority, described rail as a money-losing proposition that makes only consultants rich and hardly anyone would ride.

"Yes, the mayor of Tampa is suggesting a light rail system," Stone wrote. "They have been suggesting it here for almost 20 years - but the local politicians have decided not to tax their people into poverty to pay for a system that nobody else will pay for and that hardly anyone will use. We aren't that stupid."

Stone wrote in response to a debate in Honolulu over whether to solve the city's transportation woes with an elevated expressway or a rail system. Some Honolulu council members visited Tampa to check out the elevated lanes of the Lee Roy Selmon Crosstown Expressway. But Honolulu's mayor put his weight behind rail and called toll roads a visual blight.

Stone, planning director for the Expressway Authority, said Tuesday he wrote the letter in defense of the elevated lanes.

He describes the lanes as beautiful, and wrote "the 'fat' consultants got their money in Tampa by completing the rail study during the past decade. The city is still waiting for the Feds to give them their first dollar to build a system and, by the way, we haven't figured out how to generate one cent from anyone else either."

Private companies don't invest in rail because the projects don't make money, he wrote, adding, "Only public officials who get to spend large chunks of other people's money build fixed rail."

But Stone said the letter should not be interpreted to mean he doesn't support rail.

"I'm a supporter of rail when it's planned as part of a multimodal system," he said. "The customers for rail have to be able to get to the stations."

Stone has been a driving force behind the Expressway Authority's proposal to build a beltway spanning four bay area counties. Authority representatives have said mass transit could be a component of the road, but they will not take the lead on that aspect.

"Our charter does not give us the ability to build anything but toll highways or roadways that feed into toll highways," Stone said.

'Mass transit overdue'

Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio, who is home with the flu, could not be reached for comment. Darrell Smith, her chief of staff, said he didn't want to comment on Stone's choice of words, but said it's clear Stone is a strong advocate of toll roads and beltways.

"None of those options are going to be a practical or cost-effective way to solve our transportation problems in the Tampa Bay region," he said. "A mass transit system is overdue, and we need to start planning for that and to develop bus and a high-capacity rail system."

Ray Chiaramonte, assistant executive director of the Hillsborough County City-County Planning Commission and a strong proponent of rail, was surprised Stone would say he supports rail after penning such a scathing letter.

"I find it curious that he would say the things he said when I thought one of the arguments they had for this beltway is that it supports transit," he said. "That seems to be contradictory to me."

Regarding the cost of rail, Chiaramonte said roads are paid for with taxes as well, and voters elsewhere continually approve measures to spend more to expand existing rail systems.

"It's been extremely popular," he said. "Most of them have exceeded ridership projections, and the people like it. The voters are choosing to do this. The politicians aren't forcing the voters to do this."

The Expressway Authority board plans to select an interim executive director Dec. 18.

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