Rail Proposal Gets Personal
March 6, 2009
Over many years the issue of rail transit in Tampa has been studied, argued, abandoned, resurrected, and refined, but never have voters been asked if they want to tax themselves to begin building a useful rail system.
Tampa probably holds the world record for spinning its wheels the longest on this issue. So it was frustrating to hear three county commissioners last week attack Commissioner Mark Sharpe, who had the courage to mention "referendum" out loud at a board meeting.
Commissioner Jim Norman demanded that the first thing to do is to secure a pledge from Congress to pay a guaranteed part of the cost. Commissioner Rose Ferlita accused Sharpe of attending secret meetings about the rail project. Sharpe pointed out that he just wanted the county at the table to help work out the details. Commissioner Ken Hagan, who heads a task force on transportation, wanted to know which table.
It was altogether discouraging for rail advocates who know there can be no federal guarantee, there is no secret plot, and the table that matters most is the one where commissioners sit. Commissioners must approve the wording of any referendum and they must decide if a sales tax increase is going on the ballot in 2010.
The federal government will never guarantee funding for a project without that local commitment of support. If you don't have a solid plan to cover operating costs, you don't get federal help building the track.
U.S. Rep. John Mica, who represents east-central Florida and holds a powerful committee post on transportation, made a special trip to Tampa a few months ago to make sure leaders understood how money is awarded. If you don't offer a project, he said, you miss the boat. Lack of local projects is one reason Florida ranks near the bottom in getting federal stimulus money for transportation. Based on the latest census estimates and totals reported by Congress, Florida is getting about 81 percent of the national average in per capita spending. The loss comes to about $475 million, just in transportation.
Representatives of states busy investing in urban transit and following the rules to apply for highly competitive federal assistance are happy that Hillsborough County has never gotten its act together. They're not going to promise us money to entice us to build something.
And the accusation that secret meetings are being held is astonishing, coming from Ferlita. She is vice chair of the Metropolitan Planning Organization, the group that sets countywide transportation priorities. The board has included rail transit in its long-range plans. She is also a member of the HART board of directors, the local bus agency that has studied the rail project and who would operate it.
Last week the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority unanimously endorsed the rail plan as a first leg in a regional system. Plans pushed by Mayor Pam Iorio are picking up speed, but hard questions remain about which transportation improvements to include in addition to the USF-downtown-airport rail line.
Iorio has been talking with business leaders, planners, politicians, reporters and anyone who will listen. Last July, Iorio told the Tribune that she wants the county to offer voters in 2010 a chance to approve a transit tax.
Sharpe has been helping spread the word and debating what to ask. None of that is a secret. There is some urgency because the referendum needs to be set this summer or fall to give proponents time to campaign and inform voters. The county has shown no signs of wanting to speed the process along, much less ask voters the question.
The personal attacks on Sharpe don't bode well for a fair and open discussion of the merits of the rail plan.
"You're scaring the life out of me," Norman told Sharpe.
What's so scary about asking voters if they want to start building a modern transit system? If they're as nervous as Norman, they can just vote no.
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