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Candidate Turanchik releases plan to use new tax for Tampa train, tram and bus network

The former Hillsborough County Commissioner calls his plan affordable and effective. It will be funded, in part, by the one-penny sales tax he criticized.

TAMPA — Ed Turanchik didn't vote for the one-penny transit tax now tied up in litigation, and he criticized the measure before it won voter approval in the Nov. 6 general election.

"There was no plan behind it," he said.

Now, the candidate for mayor wants to use the money generated by the new sales tax to fund his own ambitious transportation plan — one he says will transform Tampa's gridlock into a network of train, tram and bus lines to move people around.

"I'm trying to be a good steward of that money," said Turanchik, who ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 2011.

He also wouldn't pursue any federal money to pay for the plan because, he said, it would limit flexibility and scope. He would, though, go after matching state funds.

Turanchik, a former Hillsborough County commissioner, unveiled his plan Monday to the Tampa Bay Times in advance of an evening public presentation at his Ybor City campaign headquarters.

"The problem is we've had a whole generation of public officials that have turned their back on the obvious," Turanchik said. "This is a plan we can afford."

His proposal would create 107 miles of transit routes, including several ferry lines linking Tampa to St. Petersburg and MacDill Air Force Base. But he said the cost would be just 20 of the $110 million per mile for building light rail lines in the city, based on his own estimates.

The north-south spine of the system would be hybrid diesel trains running on 100-year-old CSX rail lines without the need for a retrofit. Other lines linking downtown to Westshore, Brandon, the University of South Florida and East Tampa would use Chinese-made autonomous trams or electric buses.

The idea would be to serve people within their own neighborhoods with high-frequency service while providing them connections to other parts of the city. A downtown transit hub at North Franklin and East Polk streets would serve as the "heart" of the system, but Westshore and Tampa International Airport would also be accessible by multiple lines.

Citing U.S. Census Bureau data, Turanchik said more than 90 percent of Hillsborough County car trips begin and end in the county. He said most workers in the Westshore business corridor live in the county as do most downtown workers.

"Our mobility needs are local, not regional," he said.

If he's elected mayor, his goal would be to have the entire transit overhaul up and running within five years, he said.

The first round of the mayoral election is March 5. If none of the candidates gets more than 50 percent of the vote, the top two vote-getters proceed to an April 23 runoff.

City Council member Harry Cohen, another mayoral candidate, released his own transportation plan last month with many of the same features, including a central transit hub downtown and making use of the CSX lines for rail transit.

Turanchik said Cohen had done little in eight years in office in regards to transit and cast him as a Johnny-come-lately on the issue.

"I'm glad to see Harry's coming to where I've been for 30 years," Turanchik said. "We don't need a learn-on-the-job mayor."

Cohen said his work on the county's Metropolitan Planning Organization has prepared him well for transit initiatives as mayor. And he said Turanchik's opposition to the transit tax undermined his current message.

"I have no idea how anyone could contemplate such a major investment and not have been for the 1-cent tax," Cohen said.

Turanchik has been active in transportation issues for decades, earning the nickname "Choo-Choo Turanchik" for his advocacy of using the CSX lines for passenger travel. In more recent years, he has been the Hillsborough County champion for ferry service linking Tampa with St. Petersburg and MacDill.

Currently, the transit tax is in court after County Commissioner Stacy White filed suit asserting the levy unconstitutionally usurps the power of elected officials.

Turanchik said his plan fulfills what the voters intended. Non-transit elements like sidewalks connecting transit stops, greenspace and street improvements would come from the city's estimated $30 million a year portion. The trains, buses and trams would be paid for out of the share going to Hillsborough Area Regional Transit.

"It is fully consistent," he said of his plan's alignment with the voter initiative.

Eight weeks out from Election Day, other candidates are also releasing their vision for the future of Tampa. On Monday, branding consultant Topher Morrison released a plan for Tampa to reach 100 percent renewable energy, a campaign being advanced by the Sierra Club.

Morrison's "Green City Plan" advocates a host of solutions to combat climate change, including gondolas, rooftop gardens, solar panels and planting trees.

"The purpose of this plan is to make the business case, the people case and the common sense case for investing in sustainable, resilient and eco-friendly measures that will serve our city and residents for generations to come," Morrison wrote.