Hillsborough County inches ever closer to a light rail system

click to enlarge EVERY NAME IN THE BOOK: That's what light-rail proponents should expect to be called, said Charlotte, NC Mayor Pat McCrory. - Chris Radok
Chris Radok
EVERY NAME IN THE BOOK: That's what light-rail proponents should expect to be called, said Charlotte, NC Mayor Pat McCrory.

The Hillsborough County Commission last week began the first formal steps toward approving a penny sales tax referendum that would pay for transportation improvements, including the beginnings of a light rail system.

The vote was 5-2, with Commissioners Al Higginbotham and Jim Norman dissenting. If the same super majority holds when the issue comes back before the board in the next few months, the measure will surely be placed before Hillsborough citizens a year from now.

But as the campaign to pass the referendum begins, the conversation throughout the county shifts to what is always at the forefront of voters' minds in any policy debate: What's in it for me?

That question seems to be on the mind of even its most ardent supporters on the BOCC, which watered down the proposal to the extent that only 37 percent of tax proceeds would go directly to light rail. Twenty-five percent would be allocated to improve roads, and the rest toward improving bus service.

That percentage breakdown seemed to be a recognition that the plan will not persuade a majority of voters if it is designed strictly to raise capital for light rail.

Commissioner Mark Sharpe, by far the most vocal board member in support of the referendum, said that although it's a challenge in these recessionary times to ask citizens to tax themselves, he's more worried about "the cost of doing nothing, the cost of the status quo." He said that the county simply "can't build more roads" to contend with the transportation needs of the region in the upcoming decades. "By taking this action," he declared, "we will save people money over time."

But Commissioner Jim Norman wasn't buying that, complaining that there was no feasibility report to go along with the recommendation from the county's Transportation Task Force. He disapproved of the process as "fragmented, not regional" — a comment that Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio later rejected, saying that the light rail concept has been spearheaded by the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transit Authority, which covers seven Bay area counties.

Such criticism is something that supporters of the penny sales tax are going to have to contend with over the next year, so they'd better get used to it. That's according to Pat McCrory, the mayor of Charlotte, NC, who spoke at a transportation forum in Brandon hosted by the Tampa Bay Partnership two days before the BOCC's discussion.

McCrory, a seven-time elected mayor, gave a Power Point presentation called "From Mayberry to Metropolis" that described how he was able to shepherd the development of his city's light rail system, which opened in November of 2007.

Looking over at Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio and Commissioner Sharpe during his talk, McCrory told the crowd, "Your political leadership is taking great political risks."

And then, looking at Sharpe and Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard — both (like McCrory) Republicans — the Charlotte mayor said their advocacy of light rail is as daring as Richard Nixon's surprise visit to China in 1971 (which, for the unenlightened, was a trip that was considered bold since it theoretically went against the sentiments of his party's base).

"Please stand behind these leaders, because they'll be called every name in the book," McCrory said to laughs.

The outgoing leader of Charlotte (who officially leaves office in late November) also told those in attendance that if there was only one message he could give to them, it would be that "it's a process, not a project," emphasizing that it will be an issue that the next set of lawmakers in Tampa, Hillsborough County and the other surrounding counties will have to deal with in the decades to come.

If McCrory sounded at times like a chastened man, it's because he is. In the same year the light rail system opened in Charlotte, a recall measure to rescind the half-cent sales tax earmarked for light rail went before the voters. (It was ultimately rejected.)

Also taking in McCrory's presentation was Pinellas County Commissioner Karen Seel, who said that Pinellas is just now starting to assemble a transportation task force, as Hillsborough did a while ago. "The idea is to bring in the citizens, the environmental community, the business community to develop the project list, to discuss the revenues... we're going through the process of where the rail would go, where the stations would be and so on."

She added that there was a lot she personally could take away from McCrory's presentation. "I plan on using a lot of the same processes going forward."

The issue will come back before the board on December 2.

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