TAMPA — Transportation played a leading role Wednesday in the Tampa Downtown Partnership's City Council candidates forum, with speakers gravitating toward two schools of thought.
Several predicted the City Council won't be calling the shots on the region's transportation future, though that doesn't mean it wouldn't have any options.
"City Council will not be the lead dog on transportation," said South Tampa businessman Kent King, who is seeking to unseat council member Harry Cohen in District 4.
Others seemed ready to grab the wheel.
"The missing puzzle piece to our success now and down the road is transportation," said jeweler Guido Maniscalco, who is running in District 6. If Tampa wants to be competitive, he said, it needs to get cars off the road.
"What I can do as a member of City Council is use my position of influence to educate people as to why a referendum would work and why it's not a tax but rather an investment in our future," Maniscalco said. "We can only widen the roads so much."
Grass roots advocacy would help, said council member Mike Suarez, who chairs the board of Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority, or HART.
Because of the defeats last fall of transit referendums in Pinellas and Polk counties, "There is a lot of apprehension whether or not we're going to get a referendum," said Suarez, who is running for re-election in District 1 on March 3. "I suggest that all of you here talk to your county commissioners and tell them that we need a referendum."
Cohen suggested King downplayed the importance of the issue. With or without a referendum on a sales tax to pay for improved bus service or light rail, Cohen said, the city should look to expand the TECO Line Streetcar System, even out to a multimodal transit hub planned in West Shore.
"Then you actually have a system that gets people between the two major employment centers of the region," he said. "I think that's a huge and important thing for us to do" and "a project that we can do aside from a transportation referendum."
Suarez also said he thinks the management of the streetcar can be reorganized and its operations extended without needing a voter-approved sales tax. Once the city finds $15 million from other sources, including possibly from its community redevelopment areas for downtown and the Channel District, it can apply for federal and state grants.
"I think we can extend it from where it is now into the north downtown area," Suarez said. "Transit helps development, and development helps transit. … Without that, I don't think we're going to have as successful an urban core as we might."
District 6 candidate Jackie Toledo, a civil engineer, said, "We don't need to wait and see what happens with a referendum. We need to make our transportation system as efficient as possible."
Even those candidates who saw a limited role for the council on future regional transit policy said the council should be addressing parts of the larger picture.
District 2 candidate Joseph Citro said "the best bang for the buck" would be for government to build the landings for ferry service, so that private operators could bring in the boats.
And King agreed that "the council can support extending the streetcar service to the rest of downtown."
"Being able to ride the streetcar from one end of downtown to another, to take in a hockey game or whatever, makes sense," he said.