Is Tampa's light rail train stalled?

With ballot language still being debated, Bay area light rail supporters are getting antsy.

Mark Sharpe's arms are flailing dramatically. Given just 15 minutes to speed through what is usually a 25-minute Power Point presentation on why he thinks Hillsborough County needs to approve a one-cent sales tax referendum this fall, the county commissioner looks at a blown-up photo of a massive traffic jam behind him and proclaims, "That is part of our present, and if we don't do something, that will be part of the future." The screen then shifts to a closeup of a Wall Street Journal article titled, "Is Florida over?," which allows the former U.S. Navy officer to riff on his fears of the Bay area becoming less economically competitive if our transportation needs aren't addressed.

Staring at the 200 or so people at the Hillsborough County Republican Executive Committee, many of whom are staring back with blank visages, he pauses and admits, "I know this is not popular." Sharpe then furiously wraps up his address with a tribute to infrastructure, bellowing, "Americans BUILD! We BUILD — Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Eisenhower — we BUILD!"

His speech ends. In some quarters of the Tampa Bay area, such a performance would inspire cheering, but not at this event. Following Sharpe on stage is Orlando-area conservative talk show host Doug Goetzloe, a fierce anti-tax zealot who offers such banalities as "Light rail is an expensive plaything. It doesn't work," ignoring how it seems to work pretty efficiently in many of our major American cities. Later he'll call it Hillsborough's version of Boston's infamous Big Dig project.

Shortly thereafter, State Committeeman A.J. Matthews reads the vote tally of Hillsborough Republicans: For Goetzloe, 115 votes, for Shape, 32.

Of course, that's a better reception than the commissioner received at the Blaise Alfano Center in North Tampa a few weeks earlier. That's where he squared off against David Caton, the former anti-porn zealot who has become a leading figure protesting against the referendum. The Tampa 9/12 group, a local tea party offshoot that was dead-set against supporting another government "boondoggle," hosted the event.

Sharpe is hardly the only public official supporting the transit referendum (Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio has also been out in front on the issue for years), but he has lately become the face and voice of the movement — for now, at least. He's become a one-man show going to every part of the County to sell the referendum, which supporters say is necessary for the region to grow competitively. And his social networking skills are by far the most accomplished of any elected official in Tampa Bay, what with his blog (marksharpefl.com) and Best of the Bay-winning Twitter updates.

Though organizers say there will be a whole community movement to educate and advocate for the penny sales tax once the ballot language is approved for the measure, momentum for the project seems to be stalled. The "pesky details" (as the Tampa Tribune referred to them in a recent editorial) — including the composition of an oversight board and questions of how the money will be distributed between the county and the three cities inside it — continue to stall the implementation of an actual ordinance that can be debated.

Last week, Hillsborough County Commissioners learned that the earliest they might be able to vote on approving ballot language would be sometime in April, delaying an education and marketing campaign that advocates say they will unleash once there's an actual measure to support.

"I think the strategy from the other side is to run the clock out," Sharpe told CL last week before the commission's meeting. "Throw everything that you can at it. My response is, that's good. As they throw a lot of dirt in the air, people are going to be able to see what that is. That's going to frustrate voters."

Tampa City Councilwoman Mary Mulhern is one concerned observer. Though the transit project has major implications for Tampa, for now the power resides east on Kennedy Boulevard with the Board of County Commissioners (BOCC). She admits to getting a little antsy about the deliberations, and says what needs to happen is a major advertising campaign. "They shouldn't be relying on political consultants," she says. "They need to hire a local ad agency, and they need to bring a consultant who's done this in the past. End of story."

The Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Agency, also known as HART, has for months been paying Alan Wulkan, a consultant with the group InfraConsult who's been involved in similar campaigns. Wulkan says there's plenty of time for a full-fledged campaign and isn't concerned that ballot language hasn't been completed yet. "These are not easy decisions for a commission or any policy board to get right when it comes to planning," he says. "Frankly, I think they're making good progress. It's only March. Many communities don't finalize this far in advance."

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