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Published Sep. 16, 2009

There is a huge disconnect in Tampa between the excitement over light rail and the leadership needed to bring it about. In the last two years, the state created a regional transportation agency and that board has crafted a rail plan. Hillsborough County looks poised to schedule a referendum for next year on a penny sales tax to build the line. Yet political, business and civic leaders are not stepping up. They need to help frame this debate as one about jobs, incomes and quality of life.

Hillsborough commissioners are expected to vote this fall on whether to put a penny sales tax for transit on the November 2010 general election ballot. Approval looks likely, thanks to a growing realization that state and local governments cannot afford to continue condemning private property and building roads as the sole solution to reduce traffic. If voters approve the tax, it would raise billions of dollars in the coming decades for rail, expanded bus service and road improvements.

The proportion of household incomes spent on transportation by residents in the Tampa Bay area ranks among the highest in the nation. How people here get around directly affects the region's job market, wages, housing and quality of life. The issue is as much about effectively raising personal incomes as it is about giving commuters more options and cutting travel times.

Yet only three prominent Tampa leaders are championing a package whose fate may be decided barely a year from now: a termed-out mayor, a county commissioner up for re-election and the head of a regional business group. Mayor Pam Iorio, Commissioner Mark Sharpe and Stuart Rogel of the Tampa Bay Partnership bring political clout and bully pulpits. But by themselves, they cannot cover all the political ground a winning campaign requires. A broader political coalition and a sharper message is needed.

The discussion so far has centered on the route for the first rail line. But three fundamental questions also need to be answered: Where will the money go? What's in it for me? And what's bad about the status quo? Obsessing over the first route could turn off the voters who neither live nor work along the first rail line. And rail is only one component of a larger spending package for roads and expanded bus service. Not all commuters will be able or willing to give up their personal vehicles; they need to see how investing in mass transit will reduce traffic.

Iorio has made the transit plan the priority of her final term, and she was the county's election supervisor in 1996 when Hillsborough voters passed the Community Investment Tax. Among the lessons learned then was that voters want concrete results for any increase in local taxes. Many voters swallowed a portion of CIT funding for a new stadium for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers because more money would go to police, firefighters and public schools. Still, the measure won only 53 percent of the vote even after the active involvement of a broad base of community leaders, from elected officials and business and civic activists to the president of the University of South Florida.

Iorio, who made a strong case for transit in a speech to the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club in Pinellas last week, may be right that Hillsborough should take the lead in going to the voters. While plans call for rail and even an intercounty bus line to become part of a regional system that includes Pinellas and other area counties, Hillsborough has the momentum. But great civic projects don't just happen. Done right, the transit plan, and especially rail, could transform the Tampa Bay area just as the airport, the performing arts center and the arrival of professional sports teams have done in decades past. But the sales job needs to come from the boardrooms to the living rooms, and backers need to frame the message before their opponents do it for them.