County seeks light rail role

By Bill Varian, Times Staff Writer

Published Wednesday, February 25, 2009

TAMPA Bringing light rail to Hills­borough County may be a top priority for Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio and many other civic leaders.

But Hillsborough County commissioners took several tense moments Wednesday to remind everyone just who holds the keys to Iorio's mass transit dreams.

It is the commissioners who decide whether to ask the voters in 2010 if using sales or other tax money to build a rail system is acceptable, a couple of them noted.

And at least one commissioner said it's about time someone started including them in the discussion.

"You guys have been meeting for two years, and now you're coming to us?" Commissioner Rose Ferlita observed.

The topic was broached Wednesday during a budget workshop at which commissioners discussed future construction projects. That's when Commission Mark Sharpe mentioned the possible mass transit referendum in 2010, and the need to prepare.

In fact, Sharpe said, he had just attended a meeting with the mayor and that morning. Also present: former Gov. Bob Martinez, former U.S. Rep. Jim Davis and several others with a hand in transportation.

He asked that County Administrator Pat Bean and other staff members attend future meetings so that the county is actively involved in the plans.

Commission Chairman Ken Hagan, who heads a county transportation task force that is also discussing rail, chimed in. The task force should be leading the discussion, he said, since commissioners ultimately decide if the issue goes to voters.

"To me, I agree we need to all be at the same table," Hagan said. "The question is: Whose table is it?"

Then Commissioner Jim Norman expressed alarm that all the discussion seems to be dealing with getting local taxpayers to pay for it.

He said he needs to see commitments from the state and federal government to pay a substantial portion of the cost, which likely will be measured in hundreds of millions.

"You're scaring the life out of me," Norman said.

Then Ferlita joined the discussion. She seized on Sharpe's use of the word "we." As in, we've been meeting, we've heard presentations, we've brought in experts.

Just who is this secret "we committee" and why are they only now deigning to include the county, Ferlita wanted to know.

"After two years, the 'we committee' has decided to do something," Ferlita said. "After two years you're going to tell us we have to come together with this 'we committee.' "

Sharpe has been among a group of elected officials and other community leaders who, with Iorio, have been arguing for the need to bring better mass transit to Hillsborough. He sits on several boards dealing with transportation, from the county's transit agency to its Metropolitan Planning Organization.

"There is no 'we committee,' " Sharpe replied. Rather, he said, there have been a number of open community discussions over the past two years, and there has been nothing secret about them.

Sharpe said the purpose of the meeting with Iorio, who has made light rail a top priority of her final years in office, was to start devising an action plan after months of talk.

"The discussion that took place today was a start of a conversation," Sharpe said, adding that commissioners have been aware of other community meetings that he has attended but, for whatever reason, they have not chosen to participate.

Reached after the meeting, Iorio said all the commissioners are aware of the community dialogue about rail. She said she has spoken personally to some of them, while others sit on boards that deal with transit.

It is important to have all the players in one room talking about the issue, she said, but it's difficult to include all seven commissioners every time the topic is discussed.

"I'm always happy to work with the commission," Iorio said. "I want to do anything I can do in a positive way to get this accomplished."

Staff writer Janet Zink contributed to this report. Bill Varian can be reached at or (813) 226-3387.