Iorio makes headway on mass transit

Janet Zink, Times staff writer

Published Saturday, November 15, 2008

TAMPA — She has talked about it with everyone from neighborhood groups to Barack Obama.

Mayor Pam Iorio is lobbying everyone she speaks with about bringing better mass transit, including rail, to Tampa.

"I say it to every group. It doesn't matter who the group is, all across the political spectrum. They all hear the same thing from me," she said. "I spend most of my time on this issue now."

Critical to making it happen: a referendum on a sales tax to pay for a rail system.

Iorio wants to see the measure on the ballot in 2010.

"Often I say to audiences, I'll be back in 2010 and talk to you about a 1-cent sales tax and why that's going to be a good thing for Hillsborough County," she said. "I hope that we give the voters a chance to express their opinion on this."

It's a road that rail supporters have traveled before, only to be blocked by an uninterested Hills­borough County Commission, which needs to approve putting any tax referendum on the ballot.

Now, two years after Iorio sent a "white paper" to hundreds of local lawmakers and business leaders urging them to reconsider light rail for the region, it appears a new County Commission has the votes to put a mass transit tax before voters.

"The odds are better than they've ever been," said Ed Crawford, government affairs director for the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit, the county's bus agency.

Commissioners Rose Ferlita, Kevin White, Kevin Beckner and Mark Sharpe say they would vote in favor of such a proposal.

Sharpe, who was slow to embrace the idea, now has a countdown to the referendum on his office wall.

What put him over the edge?

Sharpe said he came to believe a better mass transit system that includes rail would not only help people tired of paying high prices for gas, but also would boost efforts to transform the region from a low-wage service economy to high-wage information economy.

"High-wage employers and their employees are looking at alternative forms of transportation," he said.

Beckner, who beat incumbent Brian Blair this month to join the commission, said transportation improvements are about economics and the environment.

Once a proposal is developed, "the people have a right to decide if that's the way they want their tax dollars to be spent," he said.

Longtime rail supporters are delighted to see the political shift on the commission and are impressed by Iorio's leadership.

Ed Turanchik championed rail in the mid '90s but even as a county commissioner couldn't get board support for a ballot initiative.

"Mayor Iorio is the first mayor that has really been expending a lot of political capital on this and made it a priority," he said. "You can't pass this thing without the leadership of the mayor."

That's because the first leg of a system in Hillsborough would be in Tampa, where there's the population density to support it.

Ray Chiaramonte, interim executive director of the Hillsborough County Metropolitan Planning Organization, said Iorio has been the main catalyst for reviving rail discussions.

Not everyone is impressed with Iorio's enthusiasm.

Former Tampa City Council member Shawn Harrison sits on the board of the seven-county Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority, which is developing a rail plan.

Harrison would rather see a regionwide referendum. He worries Hillsborough will jump ahead with a plan that doesn't mesh with the larger agency's.

"To the extent it conflicts with what TBARTA's mission is, I don't agree with it," he said.

But Iorio, also a TBARTA member, says Hillsborough's tax would fund the piece of the TBARTA plan that runs through Hillsborough, most likely connecting the University of South Florida, downtown, the West Shore business district and the airport. It also would fund expanded bus service.

Iorio also argues if rail is successful in Hillsborough, it would ease the way for financial backing in other counties.

"It's one thing to have a line on a map," she said. "It's another thing for people to ride the line in Hillsborough County and say, 'Wow. What a great experience. How soon can we get this to Wesley Chapel?' "

Bob Clifford, the Florida Department of Transportation's planning manager for the region and incoming executive director of TBARTA, says the authority is wrestling with how to plan for seven counties with different needs and financial capabilities.

For example, only three counties — Sarasota, Pinellas and Hillsborough — are even legally allowed to propose a transit tax.

"We clearly want to be supportive," he said. "It's just understanding how it all fits together."

Mass transit initiatives typically do well with voters. Even in this dismal economic climate, on Nov. 4 voters across the country approved 23 of 32 ballot measures to raise money for mass transit, and more than half of those increased sales taxes.

A 2006 survey for the Transportation Department found 57 percent of bay area residents were likely to support a tax increase to pay for better public transportation. Of those, 83 percent preferred a sales tax.

If Hillsborough County voters get the tax choice and actually approve it, regional mass transit could be Iorio's legacy as mayor, far eclipsing her downtown park and new water pipes.

"If it's successful and it happens, that's a huge feather in her cap. There's no question," says political consultant April Schiff.

If Iorio chooses to run for another office, she would likely be attacked as a tax-and-spender, Schiff said. But her popularity and role in addressing a significant regional problem would minimize damage, she said.

"She can weather the storm," Schiff said.

And if the measure fails altogether, Iorio can argue she gave it her best effort.

"From her position there's no downside really," Schiff said. "It's win-win."

Janet Zink can be reached at or (813) 226-3401.