Light rail issue divides conservatives

By TED JACKOVICS | The Tampa Tribune

October 12,2010
Four years ago, a Republican businessman with deep political ties to the Bush administrations in Washington and Tallahassee took a rare public stance on a local issue and endorsed light rail as an alternative to the Tampa Bay area's reliance on roads.

Long before advocates to enhance local transit gained traction, West Shore developer Al Austin promoted a project that seemed contrary to his conservative roots - one that involved increasing taxes.

Indeed, conservative Republicans, including many in Tampa's business community, are split on rail projects such as the one Hillsborough officials plan to build if voters approve a 1-cent-on-the-dollar sales tax increase in November. That would pay for a light rail system as well as road, bus and other transportation improvements.

It's not that conservative Republicans are against rail, said former Meridian, Miss., Mayor John Robert Smith. Smith served on Amtrak's board and is president and chief executive of Reconnecting America, a nonprofit group in Washington that provides research on transit alternatives to auto travel.

"Fundamentally, sound transportation is and also has been the backbone of economic development in this country," Smith said. "Strong public transportation is a critical piece of that."

Karen Jaroch, chairman of the Tampa 9-12 Project that espouses conservative values and principles, agrees that the local light rail issue is a "principles issue, not a partisan issue."

"Our main philosophy is that government has its bounds, and that means this rail program violates those principles," said Jaroch, a University of South Florida graduate who worked for more than 10 years as an industrial engineer for Northrop Grumman in Bethpage, N.Y.

Rail proponents want to control growth by encouraging development along transit lines, but urban sprawl isn't necessarily bad, she said.

"It's the American dream, wanting to live in a home with a yard," Jaroch said.

Jaroch is a leader in the group that opposes a sales tax increase to back light rail and other transit and road projects. Rather than putting money into light rail, she wants to see roads improved to relieve congestion, thereby promoting a higher standard of living and fueling economic growth.

Major business players in the region, though, back light rail. Sykes Enterprises, TECO, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and other local businesses have given more than $1 million to the rail and transit advocacy group Moving Hillsborough, compared with $17,000 given to NoTaxForTracks, according to state elections officials.

Austin remains unconvinced that the highways alone can adequately handle Tampa's traffic and relieve backups in the future.

He persuaded Republican national party leaders to bring the GOP presidential convention to Tampa in 2012 despite transportation shortcomings that doomed Tampa's bid to host a Summer Olympics.

"Imagine people from all 50 states coming to Tampa for the 2012 convention ?? regular people and chief executives of major companies," he said. "If we show progress with plans for light rail, along with high speed rail coming to town in 2015, this will be seen as a great area to come to." 259-7817

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