Penny for mass transit?

By Rich Shopes, Times Correspondent

Published Monday, September 28, 2009

TAMPA — Motorists in Hills­borough County are so tired of traffic they would support a 1-cent sales tax to speed development of a light rail line and an express bus service, according to a survey released Monday by Hillsborough Area Regional Transit.

The survey for HART by Ilium Associates indicated 33 percent of respondents "definitely" would support a higher sales tax to fund the light rail line while 34 percent said they'd "probably" back the increase.

The survey comes as Hillsborough County commissioners are debating whether to put the tax question before voters in November 2010. HART would use funding from the 1-cent tax increase to create a rail system between the University of South Florida, downtown Tampa and the West Shore business district. Money also would go toward the creation of high-speed bus system as well as several road and intersection improvements.

The study, conducted in July and August, was based on 600 phone interviews with county residents 18 and older, many of whom have never used HART. The strongest support came from Tampa and Brandon and was among women. The weakest support came from Lutz, Temple Terrace, Apollo Beach and Plant City.

The findings revealed a dramatic shift in attitudes from the last survey in 2006, when the respondents said they would support road improvements over increases in mass transit to tackle congestion, said John Gobis, a principal owner of Ilium, based in Bellevue, Wash.

"What I think did it was people are tired of sitting in traffic on I-4 on a Wednesday or Friday afternoon, thinking that there are more productive ways to spend their time," he said.

Mark Sharpe, a HART board member and county commissioner, said the study could help boost support for the referendum, even in the down economy. He added that building a rail and high-speed bus system would produce jobs.

HART executive director David Armijo said the findings weren't surprising given the dialogue about rail among top government officials the past two years. Even with the recession, 70 percent of transit-based referendums nationwide succeeded last year, he said.

"There's been a lot of dialogue about transit, and I think you're seeing that reflected in the surveys," he said.

The survey's results came after HART's governing board approved a $143 million budget for the next fiscal year starting Oct. 1. The millage rate remained unchanged. The budget was $20 million higher than the 2009 plan, mostly due to increases in one-time capital expenditures, including $15.2 million in stimulus funds to purchase buses and vans.

Money for bus operations declined 2.76 percent to $56.7 million. Spending for the downtown streetcar remained flat at about $2 million, and paratransit service increased $360,000 to about $3.8 million.

The drop reflects an anticipated decline in property values next year — HART gets most of its funding from property taxes — cutbacks in overtime and the elimination of routes with low ridership, spokeswoman Kathy Karalekas said.

Among other cuts, in November the agency will eliminate the Route 83 University Area Connector and shift some of its operations to the Route 33, which runs on Fletcher Avenue.

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