Iorio Makes Plea For Tampa-Centric Rail

January 23, 2009

By RICH SHOPES | The Tampa Tribune

Mayor Pam Iorio this morning made an impassioned pitch for a Tampa-centric rail plan to members of TBARTA, the region's transportation authority, saying the system's first leg could be built in five or six years if approved by voters in a 2010 referendum.

Iorio, who serves as a TBARTA board member, said the plan dovetails with the authority's effort to create a master transportation plan for seven counties: Citrus, Hernando, Pasco, Pinellas, Hillsborough, Manatee and Sarasota.

The mayor took criticism a few months ago when she proposed that TBARTA, which stands for Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority, launch its rail program by focusing on Tampa and Hillsborough County.

Board members said she was moving too fast and hadn't first sought consensus.

But this morning Iorio countered saying Tampa and Hillsborough have spent $15 million over the past 20 years studying rail and were further along in developing a plan than other communities in TBARTA's jurisdiction.

The mayor is pushing to bring the issue to Hillsborough voters in 2010 to ask for a 1-cent increase in the sales tax. Additional funding would come from the federal government and state.

The Tampa-Hillsborough County plan would have trains running from the University of South Florida to downtown, the West Shore business district and Tampa International Airport.

The system's first leg would be an 11-mile stretch between USF and downtown because studies show that of all the corridors in the bay area, that one has the greatest transit need, she said.

"In 2010, if the voters of Hillsborough approve that 1-cent sales tax, that can go to preliminary engineering, that can go to design ? that can probably be built in five or six years," the mayor said.

Additionally, having a line up and running would spur other communities to move their plans along. Without rail, the region's highways are facing gridlock because of anticipated population growth in northern Hillsborough and southern Pasco counties.

"You have to show people success, and you can show lines on a map forever, but there's nothing like getting on the train and riding it," she said.

Tampa's HART could operate the Tampa-Hillsborough rail line until other counties come onboard, at which time TBARTA would take over.

TBARTA's backing of the plan would, Iorio said, help in a bid for state and federal funding and help convince Hillsborough County Commissioners later this fall to put the issue on next year's ballot.

The mayor seemed to win over at least some members. None objected to the idea.

Hillsborough Commissioner Ken Hagen said he supported it and noted the rail plan should be packaged with proposals to build roads and sidewalks and bike trails.

Pasco Commissioner Ann Hildebrand, Sarasota Commissioner Nora Patterson, board member Shawn Harrison and board Chairman Shelton Quarles praised the mayor's presentation.

Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard, who criticized the mayor a few months ago, said after the meeting: "If they're prepared to go forward I think that's great."

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