Commissioner isn't out to kill transit tax, but…

By Bill Varian, Times Staff Writer

Published Wednesday, September 9, 2009

TAMPA — Hillsborough County Commissioner Jim Norman insists he's not looking to pick a fight. No, he says, he's not looking to become the face of opposition to a proposed sales tax referendum to pay for rail transit.

But as officials prepare for a possible ballot question in November 2010, Norman has emerged as the main person throwing water on the plan.

Norman has much more than a vote on whether the issue goes to ballot. As one of Hillsborough's most tenured officials, his criticism could carry some weight with voters next year.

"I don't want to be the 'no' guy," Norman said Wednesday. "I really don't. I don't want to kill an opportunity. I just think it could be better."

His comments came after a County Commission workshop during which Norman was again raising red flags. Representatives of Hillsborough Area Regional Transit, which would oversee the project, were updating the board.

Norman complained that he's having trouble getting those studying a transit referendum to answer his questions. Then he lobbed a few more.

Why are backers of the referendum proposing to raise the sales tax by a penny on the dollar to pay for it, as opposed to a half-penny or some other tax? Why would the tax have a 30-year sunset? Do county finance experts agree with revenue projections and whether they would pay for the system?

"When we have feedback, it's like we're not listened to," Norman said.

Commission Chairman Ken Hagan said those are all questions that a task force he is leading are wrestling with. They expect to have better answers in the coming months, he said.

Norman said afterward that he does not plan to actively campaign against the referendum. He'll be busy with his own bid for a state Senate seat next year.

But he said he does have several serious concerns about the issue. He thinks it should be handled by the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transit Authority, created by the Legislature to address transportation needs across seven counties, including Hillsborough.

It should include a mix of transportation options that cross county lines and link residents and tourists to regional destination spots, from Busch Gardens to the Pinellas beaches.

Hillsborough transit officials are studying an initial system with two main lines, linking downtown to the West Shore business district and the University of South Florida. Norman said successful systems around the country link multiple counties.

Without that, it would never be an economic development engine as its proponents claim.

"I think in a single county system, you don't get your return on investment," Norman said.

That's assuming the issue passes, and Norman isn't convinced that it would.

A consultant for HART outlined some of the challenges on that front Wednesday.

Alan Wulkin, managing partner with InfraConsult, who has worked on several other transit initiatives around the country, noted that most voters who consider the measure will never use the train system. In fact, perhaps 90 percent of the population may never ride the rails.

With that in mind, "You need to answer the question, 'What's in it for me?' " Wulkin said.

Hagan said that's why he's insisting that one-fourth of the sales tax go to roadwork throughout the county and that some of the transit money be used to increase the frequency and efficiency of bus service.

"If (this) is a Tampa rail plan or is even perceived as a Tampa rail plan, it will be dead on arrival," he said.

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