Region urged to start light rail

By Bill Varian, Times Staff Writer

Published Monday, November 2, 2009

TAMPA — Patrick McCrory uses a medical metaphor to make the case for light rail and better mass transit.

Cities without them may be getting along fine now even as their roadways clog with traffic, says the seven-term mayor of Charlotte, N.C. But they'll be in for problems 20 or 30 years from now.

"You can wait until the pain arrives and do it then," he said. "But most likely, you've waited too long."

McCrory came to that realization not long into his 14-year tenure as Charlotte's mayor. He pushed the referendum that increased his community's sales tax to build a rail system and expand bus service.

That was more than 10 years ago, and the first of five legs is now open.

McCrory shared some wisdom from that journey during a transportation forum Monday in Brandon organized by the Tampa Bay Partnership. The regional economic booster group pushing a similar effort here.

About 300 people attended the forum at the Crowne Plaza Tampa East, many traveling from Pinellas, Polk and other surrounding counties. They included business leaders, planners and politicos, including Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio, Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe and Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard.

Speaking of the elected officials among the crowd, McCrory said they are in for a hard task.

"It's one hell of a sale, because the pain is not there right now," he said. "They're going to be called every name in the book over the next year or two."

Hillsborough County commissioners will take their first steps toward placing a proposed 1-cent sales tax on the November 2010 ballot when they hear the recommendation of a task force Wednesday. The tax would pay for rail lines, souped-up bus service and roadwork.

McCrory knows what lies in store.

His city's entry into rail got off to a rough start, quickly encountering cost overruns and other problems. The first leg was dubbed by critics as the "McCrory Line," which, he said, wasn't meant as a compliment.

Now it's simply called the blue line, a span of about 11 miles linking downtown Charlotte to the suburbs south. A northeastern line is on the way.

Its success has drawn community leaders from around the country hoping to use it as a model, including several contingents from Hillsborough County.

Ridership has already exceeding projections not expected until 2020. Property values along the line, along with construction, have soared. And bankers line up downtown to hop buses largely used by the poor and minorities before.

And it has emerged as a major sales point as Charlotte competes with Tampa in luring businesses, he said. Business leaders like to know that their employees have a reliable way to get to work, and that elected officials are attacking community challenges head on.

"It's a huge recruiting advantage I have over other communities that will remain nameless," McCrory said with a smile.

He offered a few points of guidance to those who will be pushing the initiative, both during the meeting and in an interview beforehand.

First off, he said, rail and more buses won't ease congestion in the Tampa Bay region. It shouldn't be sold that way, he said. Rather, it should marketed as an option to people who want to avoid congestion.

A Republican who describes himself as a fiscal conservative, McCrory said all forms of transportation, including roads, are heavily subsidized. And you can make roads only so wide.

Meanwhile, he said, the lines have attracted tremendous redevelopment around them. He came equipped with before and after slides to back up his assertion.

Mistakes and cost overruns will occur. Address them promptly and transparently, he said.

And show the alternative, which he illustrated with a typical commercial thoroughfare flanked by rows of faceless strip malls and auto shops.

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