TAMPA — When Hillsborough voters head to the polls in November to consider a 1 cent sales tax for light rail, they won't know exactly where the rail line could go. The county's transit board isn't scheduled to make a final decision on the tracks until after the election. Critics of the proposal say the lack of details could doom the referendum. "The taxpaying public already doubts government when we come and ask them to pay for some project. And here we've got a project we want them to pay for and we're missing some important details," said Al Higginbotham, one of two county commissioners who voted against putting the referendum on the November ballot. "When we're asking for a tax with no expiration date, and yet we don't know where these corridors are going to go, it's going to raise questions for voters." Ideally, plans would have been nailed down before the election, said some members of the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit board. Having details by a deadline is less important than collecting data and making informed choices, they said. "In a perfect world it would be nice to have all that detail now, but the reality is we don't," board member Steve Polzin said. "At this point, we need to evaluate the data and give the community and the stakeholders a chance to weigh in and then make the decision." On Monday, the HART board will review potential light rail routes stretching from Tampa International Airport to Cross Creek Boulevard in the northern part of the county. The study examines ridership, construction costs, travel times, and other factors to consider when choosing exactly where to lay the tracks. Building the entire light rail system will cost more than $1.7 billion, according to an early HART estimate. If approved, the sales tax would raise an estimated $188 million a year. HART plans to hold six workshops in coming weeks and two public hearings in late September on the routes. That feedback from the community will help the HART board decide exactly where the tracks would go. Two corridors have been evaluated — one stretching west from downtown Tampa to the airport and another going north from downtown Tampa to Cross Creek Boulevard. Possible northbound routes generally include heading up Interstate 275 to Busch Boulevard or Fowler Avenue and then up 30th Street to Bruce B. Downs Boulevard, ending at Cross Creek Boulevard; or following existing CSX tracks through Ybor City to 30th Street. To get to the airport, the options include heading down Cass or Cypress streets to Trask Street, then traveling west along Spruce Street to TIA; or following I-275 to Lois Street to reach Cypress. The study generally shows that using the I-275 corridor provides the fastest service at the lowest price when compared with laying tracks through city streets. As for ridership, traveling along the interstate to the airport captures 50 percent more passengers than the street tracks. Going north, the Ybor City route would attract slightly more riders but cost much more, according to the study. HART board chairman Ron Govin pointed out that at least the rail routes have been narrowed to a few choices. "People will understand the thrust of the corridors," he said. "I don't think people should be too upset that we're doing the due diligence." And Govin points out that the referendum is about more than just rail. Money from the sales tax would also help pay for expanded bus service and road improvements. "It is a total transportation package that we're talking about," he said. "Within a two- to three-year window, we'll be able to double the number of buses on the road, and that's what is really, in my mind, from a transit standpoint, where we need to serve the public. We just have not had the resources to do that." In Charlotte, N.C., voters approved a sales tax to pay for light rail years before selecting final routes, HART executive director David Armijo noted. "When they passed the referendum, they began spending money to build up their bus system and expand the services they currently had," he said. At least one opponent of the tax said the lack of information on the routes is unimportant. "If I vote for or against this, it's not so much with respect to the track layout. It just goes down to the core issue of taxes," said Sam Rashid, a Brandon businessman and one of the most vocal objectors to the referendum. Rail enthusiasts, he said, aren't likely to care where the tracks are going either. "At this point, the fight is over are we going to fund it or are we not going to fund it. The rest of the stuff is peripheral," Rashid said. David Singer is the campaign manager for Moving Hillsborough Forward, the political action committee that has raised more than $1 million to push for passage of the tax. He said the route questions shouldn't be a problem for the campaign. "It's just another couple of minutes in our presentation about options as opposed to definite routes," he said, adding that the campaign intends to show voters the benefits of the whole system. "Regardless of whether it goes down route A or route B, it's going to create billions of dollars in investment. It's going to create jobs. It's going to provide mobility options. It's about a lot more than getting people from one point to another." Janet Zink can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3401.Copyright 2010 St. Petersburg Times
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