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  1. Opinion

Ruth: Time for action, not more talk, on transit

Almost from the first day I set foot in Tampa in 1973, there was talk about developing a mass transit system. For more than 40 years, city planners, county planners, regional planners, university planners and a dense alphabet soup of planning agencies have issued the results of master plans, studies, focus groups, research papers and all manner of futuristic proposals supporting the notion of some day, eventually, maybe creating some kind of light rail system throughout Tampa.

Talk, talk, talk, talk. And now — Stop the presses! — we have even more transit talk.

There are hopes to have a ballot measure for 2016 in which the citizenry will be asked to approve a half-cent sales tax hike. The money would be used to address transportations needs across Hillsborough County, including roads, long-delayed maintenance needs and yes, perhaps the early stages of a light rail system in Tampa.

If the half-cent sales tax is approved it is expected to generate $117.5 million annually, or about $3.5 billion over the next 30 years to meet the county's transportation demands. Tampa's portion of that money could be used for any transit project the city wants. And that means money at long last might be available to begin expanding the city's glorified tourist semi-thrill ride streetcar system, which currently goes from A to B.

And in time there is talk, more talk about extending a light rail system to West Shore and Tampa International Airport. When would it all happen? Let's put it this way, I'll be dead before everything gets up and running.

Still, given the many fits and starts, the constant talk of transit and those who have given their lives to become window dressing on various models illustrating what a light rail system might look like, the 2016 ballot initiative may be Tampa's last best chance to finally create a 21st century multidimensional transit complex.

A strong argument can be made that this is the time to begin creating a mass transit network in Tampa. The city is growing. Its downtown core is exploding with more residents and businesses. A mass transit system holds great appeal to companies considering relocations. Light rail would help ease pollution and offer a relief from increased traffic gridlock. And let's face it, the longer Tampa waits to develop light rail, the more expensive it gets.

Yet these transit initiatives historically have struggled to gain traction at the ballot box.

Chances are good that voters will approve a tax increase that would be dedicated to a school being built, or a road improved, or a bridge built. The public can see the immediate result of their vote in a tangible way. They can see the end result.

Transit issues are different. The taxpayer is being asked to approve massive amounts of money to be spent on a public works project years into the future that many voters will never use. That requires vision. It requires trust. It certainly demands unique political leadership skills to seal the deal.

And a big part of that salesmanship hinges on the ability of transit's supporters to ask the public to answer in the affirmative simple, but at the same time, a few very complex questions. What do you want Tampa to be? Do you see a city that is easier for future generations to navigate? Or do you have an asphalt fetish?

Or do you want to just keep talking about light rail? And talking, and talking, and talking.