Published: April 2, 2009
TAMPA - The Hillsborough County Commission instructed its staff Wednesday to begin preparing a referendum on a 1-cent sales tax increase for transportation projects, including light rail.
The commission voted 7-0 to start work on the referendum to put before voters in November 2010. The county commission is the only local government that can put a countywide tax measure on the ballot.
The commission will make a final decision in September after it gets a recommendation from the county's 21-member transportation task force, which is run by Hillsborough County Commission Chairman Ken Hagan.
The task force will hold a dozen or more public hearings to gather information about whether to hold a vote and which projects should be included in the ballot measure, said Lucia Garsys, assistant county administrator for planning and infrastructure.
"Light rail always gets the headlines; there's no question it's the sexy component of it," Garsys said. "But other projects will include expanded bus service, improved roads and trails, among other things."
Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio, a strong proponent of a light-rail system, said the commission took an important step in beginning the referendum process.
"I appreciate the commission's willingness to move this issue forward, as it is so critical to our future," Iorio said in an e-mail.
Commissioner Jim Norman voted in favor of the motion but warned fellow board members that the referendum likely will fail because of the county's dire economic straits.
"I don't see an overwhelming vote for a penny," Norman said. "I get back to these are the toughest times we've ever been in. People are going to ask, 'Are we out of our minds.'"
But Commissioner Mark Sharpe pointed to the success of the light-rail system in Charlotte, N.C., that was begun in the 1990s. Sharpe said the county can't delay building a multimodal transportation system without hurting long-term economic gains.
"What we don't do now, future generations will have to do at a much higher cost," Sharpe said.
Commissioner Al Higginbotham also expressed doubt about floating a tax proposal in 2010.
Hagan and Sharpe and Commissioners Rose Ferlita, Kevin White and Kevin Beckner all spoke in favor of funding mass transportation.
Reporter Mike Salinero can be reached at (813) 259-8303.http://www2.tbo.com/content/2009/apr/02/na-hillsborough-to-craft-transit-tax-referendum/