TAMPA — With the November elections looming, the push is on to inform voters about a referendum on a 1-cent sales tax to pay for transportation improvements. "It's our responsibility to educate folks," said Katharine Eagan, chief of service development for Hillsborough Area Rapid Transit, before speaking Monday at a New Tampa Chamber of Commerce meeting. "So we've been educating a lot." Since October, HART officials have outlined the plan at more than 250 meetings. There were only 130 outreach events in the prior year. At Monday's chamber meeting, Eagan focused on the bus and rail portions of the plan, which will consume 75 percent of the money raised by the tax. The remaining 25 percent will pay for road improvements. State law doesn't allow HART, funded with taxpayer money, to advocate for the new tax. But Eagan can talk about how it will affect the bus agency. Among the highlights of her presentation: • Passage of the tax will allow HART to more than double the county's bus system, with buses running every 15 minutes during rush hour and every 30 minutes at other times. The tax would allow some buses to run 24 hours a day. • Many of the new services will begin within months of the tax's passage, creating jobs for drivers, mechanics and administrative workers. • A citizens group made up of people with accounting, finance and transportation backgrounds will make sure the money is spent as promised. The response to the presentation was mixed. Karen Goss, who lives in Ybor City and works for a commercial developer with rental property in New Tampa, said she can't embrace the tax. "I want to be open to it," she said. But with unemployment so high, she doesn't believe it's the right time to increases taxes. Plus, she said, the new sales taxes will mean higher rents for her company's tenants. Ray Kearney, a home builder who lives in New Tampa, said he remembers when the Hillsborough County sales tax was only 3 percent. If the referendum passes, the county's tax rate will be 8 percent. "I see constant increase. Constant increases over the years," he said. "It makes Tampa a lot less affordable." He also questions if Tampa has enough density to support more buses and a rail line connecting Tampa International Airport to New Tampa. "We'll have deficits out the ying yang," he predicted. Although most discussions of the proposed sales tax focus on the fact that it could bring light rail to the area, New Tampa resident Matt Palmer said he's likely to vote for it because of the bus component. "Bus service is more immediate, more flexible and more cost-effective," he said. Janet Zink can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3401.Copyright 2010 St. Petersburg Times
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