County's rail talks inching along

By Sue Carlton, Times Columnist

Published Tuesday, March 16, 2010

There I was at a Hills­borough County Commission meeting when Mark Sharpe started looking a little like the Maytag repairman.

Remember him from the TV commercials, all lonely because nobody called? Except the Maytag guy was alone because everything was working so well. In Commissioner Sharpe's world these days, things are not.

A Republican who considers himself a fiscal conservative, Sharpe is the county voice making a case for a 1- cent sales tax for light rail, greatly expanded bus service and road fixes. Other commissioners have voiced support, but Sharpe's the guy showing up to take a beating at Republican gatherings and even a tea party event, the guy threatened with being run out of office, pardon the expression, on a rail.

"Americans build," Sharpe likes to say, sounding pretty Republican to me.

But lately, commissioners cannot seem to agree even on the 75 words they will (or maybe won't, given the turtle-ish speed at which things are going) put on the November ballot to ask if voters are willing to pay that penny for transit.

There was talk of being rushed. Some wanted the way the money will be divvied up (75 percent for bus and rail, 25 percent for road improvements) included on the ballot. Commissioner Rose Ferlita brought along her own ballot language — that would be Option 3, if you were counting.

Heck, I'm not sure they agree on the meaning of the word "ballot" at this point.

Tampa's biggest voice for rail, Mayor Pam Iorio, was in the audience that day as the commission parsed and niggled and ultimately voted to do, well, not much. I saw her close her eyes and bow her head at the latest slowdown for something this big, this important — a proposal she later said had been studied and vetted and considered longer and more thoroughly and by more people in more corners than almost any other in her political career.

I read her bowed head as a request for divine guidance.

Here's another thing I don't get: Commissioners who voice support for getting transit on the ballot but who say it doesn't have a chance with voters, or those who think that agreeing to put it on the ballot doesn't mean they actually support it. Yes, in this economy, it may not pass. But doesn't this sound like bet hedging? Like testing political waters without making a commitment?

Forget the tangle of politics here. Don't you, like me, want to know if your elected officials believe this is the right thing to do?

Normally, when Sharpe talks rail, he is like a highly caffeinated, majorly wonkish Energizer Bunny. Commissioner Jim Norman can call rail "a noose around the neck of the taxpayers," and Sharpe comes back with its popularity in Phoenix, Charlotte and Salt Lake City, or 60,000-plus daily riders in Dallas, or 45,000 in Houston.

But this day, he sounded subdued, even after he got surprising and enthusiastic applause from the audience for his pitch about America, and building, and getting this in the voters' hands.

At today's meeting, the commission will again talk transportation (not to mention the major distraction of whether to fire the county administrator, attorney and auditor).

Will Sharpe stand alone in his convictions?

Will others express some?

As we inch toward November, we'll see.

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