Mass transit tax to go on ballot

By Bill Varian, Times Staff Writer

Published Wednesday, December 2, 2009

TAMPA — A proposed sales tax increase to pay for mass transit in Hillsborough County inched closer to the ballot Wednesday.

In a 5-2 vote, county commissioners resolved to put the issue on the November 2010 ballot. The board action was little surprise, as the same split of commissioners tentatively agreed to do as much last month.

While the vote is not binding, it cleared the way for commissioners to begin holding public hearings and debating details. That discussion will lead to creation of specific ballot language, which commissioners will take up early next year.

"I think the work that the board has done has been enormously important to our community," said Mark Sharpe, a leading advocate of the initiative.

He said he welcomed the vigorous community dialogue that has already begun and will continue.

"It's going to be a tough sell," Sharpe said. "It should be."

The resolution passed Wednesday lays out the broad framework for the start of discussions. It calls for asking voters if they would approve increasing the sales tax by 1 cent, to 8 cents.

The tax would have no expiration date, as the proposal stands now. Three-fourths of the money would go toward the rail and bus system, which would include new express and regional routes. The rest would go primarily for roadwork, particularly in areas not near proposed rail lines.

Money for rail would initially pay for two main lines. One would link downtown to the University of South Florida area. The other would connect downtown to the West Shore business district.

Commissioners will debate those details, some of which could change, over the coming months. They'll also discuss who will oversee the transit system and how it could link with other, prospective regional rail systems.

Their discussion Wednesday, and public testimony preceding it, gave a glimpse into the political battle ahead.

Supporting commissioners said they are merely giving voters a chance to vote on whether to tax themselves to address transit needs. And that's who should be making the decision, not commissioners, they said.

"I think putting it on the ballot and listening to voters, that's going to be the right test," Commissioner Rose Ferlita said.

Commissioner Jim Norman, who along with Al Higginbotham voted against moving forward, rejected that characterization. He said commissioners who support the initiative should be prepared to get accused of supporting a tax increase.

"You support the tax if you vote to put it on the ballot today," he said. "You wouldn't put it on the ballot if you didn't support it."

Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio, who has championed the initiative though she has no power to put the measure on the ballot, praised commissioners for their leadership.

Iorio said she respects their resolve in the face of a decision for which some commissioners may face political heat. She said she believes voters respect politicians who take principled stands, rather than doing what's safe.

"Frankly, I think voters today want courageous people in office who are willing to make a darn decision," Iorio said. "By gosh, we need more of that in this country."

Commissioners have been besieged with hundreds of e-mails in recent days voicing opposition to the rail proposal. Many came as form letters disseminated by the Florida Family Association, whose executive director, David Caton, has been an early opponent of the tax proposal.

He urged commissioners to block a tax increase that he said would do little to ease traffic congestion.

Most of the nearly dozen or so public speakers at the meeting voiced at least qualified support for the ballot initiatives. However, opponents said their speaker cards were passed over during the limited time slot for speaking.

A handful of speakers urged board members to eliminate most of the suburban road projects included in the plan, wearing placards that read "no pork in the penny."

Bill Varian can be reached at or (813) 226-3387.

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