When did "rail" become a dirty word

By Sue Carlton, Times Columnist

Published Friday, February 26, 2010

When exactly did "rail" become a dirty word?

And when you read about rail — as in, light rail currently being considered in Hillsborough as part of a big transportation package — do we need to give it the family newspaper scrub-down?

Lump it in with those objectionable words we do not say in front of the children?

Spell it out modestly, with dashes, in print?

This week, Hillsborough commissioners once again debated details of a hotly controversial referendum that would ask voters for a penny sales tax for expanded bus service, road projects — and yes, light r---.

The board, with its solid for-it and agin-it blocks, got to talking about the proposed words that would appear on the ballot come November. This precise and careful language would ask voters about a critical move for our region's future — in no more than 75 words.

A version of this read, in part:

Shall a modern, comprehensive transportation plan including: rapid transit … expanding bus service, including more than 560 buses; improving major and neighborhood roads and bridges; and other transportation projects; be funded by levying a one percent transportation sales surtax?

Words that, as Commissioner Jim Norman, R-Agin It, pointed out, contain no actual mention of the R-word.

"I find it very, very" — pause for a knowing chuckle — "unique that in all the language that's going to the voter, you don't even mention the train, the light rail train," he said.

"Man up," he told the pro-r---- block. "Tell the people what they're voting on."

Well, darn it. What a shame to give naysayer Norman an excuse to hop on his high horse when the transportation situation is currently so abysmal that Forbes.com named the Tampa Bay region the worst place to commute in the entire country.

But, the man has a point.

The R-word matters. To both sides.

The agin-its get to demonize it. Lots of people are unfamiliar with rail, unsure they would ride it, unwilling to pay for it. Some agin-its like to say the other parts of the package — the expanded bus system, the badly needed road improvements — are mere bribes to get the public to swallow rail.

(Hey, you wanna bribe me to fix my roads? I'm listening.)

The trick for true believers in bringing transit up to speed is how to get citizens not to wince at the R-word, to get them to think "progress" rather than "boondoggle," to show them facts beyond rhetoric. Because r--- is no easy sell in this economy, no matter how many mornings voters sit in stop-still traffic, no matter how high gasoline prices go.

Clarity and education matter as November gets closer. As a couple of commissioners pointed out, some folks already wrongly think we're debating high-speed r----, the kind that just got federal funding between Tampa and Orlando.

The debate over the R-word was one of the sillier moments among serious issues to be hashed out. In the end, the county attorney said she will come up with new ballot language that includes the word "rail."

Yep, I said it: rail.

Hopefully a lot of us will be saying it — and understanding the need for it better — by the time November rolls around.


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