Light rail gets a push forward

Bill Varian and Mike Brassfield, Times Staff Writers

Published Monday, August 4, 2008

TAMPA — Hillsborough County transit officials voted Monday to push ahead on efforts that could bring light rail to the Tampa area.

The vote is considered a first step toward getting voters to decide in 2010 if local taxes should be set aside for rail. Monday's vote approved a study that is needed before federal financing is made available.

Such federal help requires matching local money. The study, therefore, makes the 2010 referendum more likely, said County Commissioner Mark Sharpe, who serves on the board of Hills­borough Area Regional Transit, which took the vote Monday.

HART board members also voted 5 to 4 to set a tentative property tax rate of a half-mill. That has historically been the tax rate set by the busing agency, though it had been rolled back slightly last year because of property tax cuts imposed by the state.

The board's three representatives from the County Commission each voted against the tax rate hike, a sign that it is far from certain to pass when it returns for a final vote next month.

Increasing the tax rate would help fast-track the estimated $2.5-million rail and transit study, which the board approved unanimously.

The new study will update a rail plan completed by HART in 2003.

That plan mapped out a 21-mile, $986-million rail line. It also doubled the buses in Hillsborough, partly to get commuters to rail stations.

That plan ran into opposition. Twice in recent years, Hillsborough commissioners declined to put a referendum on the ballot to pay for it.

HART board member Steve Polzin, a past skeptic of rail plans in Tampa, cautioned that the study approved Monday must look at all solutions for easing commutes.

Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio, a vocal proponent of rail, is among those calling for a 2010 referendum. She's backing a downtown-USF-airport rail line envisioned by HART and Hillsborough transportation planners.

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