Tax for rail? Hard sell to GOP

By Janet Zink, Times Staff Writer

Published Tuesday, February 16, 2010

TAMPA — Speaking to a room packed with nearly 200 Republicans, Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe invoked the names of GOP heroes in making his pitch for a 1 cent sales tax to pay for light rail, expanded bus service and road improvements.

Fight socialism and downsize government, Sharpe said. But Ronald Reagan supported defense spending and infrastructure investments.

President Eisenhower built the interstate highway system.

And Thomas Jefferson pressed for canals and roads to make the country more mobile.

"Americans build," Sharpe said. "We can discern between entitlements and expanded government and putting money in infrastructure. I'm a military man. I believe in it. I believe in roads. I believe in rail. I believe in concrete and steel."

He urged the crowd at the Hillsborough County Republican Executive Committee meeting Tuesday night to not reject the plan simply because it involves a new tax.

"At least consider it," he said.

But Sharpe failed to persuade a majority of his fellow Republicans to support the concept. In a straw poll, two voters were undecided on the tax, 32 voted in favor of it and 115 voted no.

Hillsborough County commissioners are hashing out the details of a referendum on the tax that is likely to appear on the November 2010 ballot.

Arguing the anti-tax side was Doug Guetzloe, a consultant and radio talk show host who founded a group called Ax the Tax in 1982.

"How many of you feel undertaxed?" he asked.

Politicians, chamber members and businesses that will benefit from rail will support the tax, he said, but regular people will not. "There is no ground swell of interest or support from consumers or taxpayers," he said. "Even if you wanted to raise taxes, you certainly shouldn't do it in the middle of the Obama nation depression."

Historically, he said, projections of rail ridership are high and cost estimates to build the lines are low.

Sharpe countered that even though most Hillsborough residents won't ride the first leg of the rail line, which would connect the University of South Florida to the West Shore business district, only 3 percent of Hillsborough's local traffic is concentrated on Interstate 275. Sharpe said the line is expected to attract 24,000 riders, and that translates to fewer cars on the road. "I know this is not popular," Sharpe said. "I'm not going to try to convince you. I just want you to give it some consideration."

The County Commission will discuss the referendum at a transportation workshop scheduled Feb. 25, and could vote on putting the tax on the ballot March 17.

Janet Zink can be reached at or (813) 226-3401.

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