Iorio made light rail her priority as others avoided the issue
June 6, 2010
Two years ago, as West Central Florida leaders were discussing proposals for a regional transportation network, Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio issued a bold proclamation.
Tampa was going to take the lead in bringing light rail to the region, she told them, building a mass transit system that could be expanded to serve other communities.
To pay for it, Iorio proposed a referendum asking Hillsborough County voters to approve a sales tax increase, a move that previous county commissions had rejected.
"I think the city is ready," she told members of the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority in July 2008. "I think the people are ready."
The mayor's declaration of independence was the culmination of years of behind-the-scenes lobbying and public advocacy by her and other supporters of light rail.
Two years went by before the Republican-controlled Hillsborough commission put the item on the agenda for consideration, but last month, the board voted to place a referendum on a 1-cent sales tax increase on the ballot in November. The majority of the money raised would go to light rail and other mass transit projects.
Iorio has made mass transit a pillar of her administration, lobbying local, state and federal officials, attending related meetings mentioning it in speeches and teaching an honors class on mass transit at the University of South Florida.
And As she nears the end of her final last term, Iorio said she is confident that regardless of the referendum's outcome, mass transit is an issue that won't go away.
"We are one of the few major metropolitan areas of this country that doesn't have a transit system," she said. "We can't move forward without making that investment."
'A lot of support'
Mass transit wasn't a key part of Iorio's agenda when she was elected in 2003. But after taking office, she started talking with constituents and transportation advocates.
"I began to realize that the people were ahead of the public officials on this issue," she said in a recent interview. "That's not to say there wasn't opposition to it, but there was a lot of support."
So she started talking about the need to improve mass transit, incorporating the issue into speeches and suggesting that such a move could help foster a spirit of cooperation between the city, county and the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority, which was likely to operate the rail system.
That train, however, didn't get very far.
When the issue got to the Hillsborough Commission in 2004, the board â?? dominated by rail opponents including Jim Norman and Ronda Storms â?? refused to ask voters to support a sales tax increase to fund light rail, so it was shelved.
Iorio recalled asking Ray Chiaramonte, director of Hillsborough County's Metropolitan Planning Organization, why the transportation agency hadn't moved ahead with light rail proposals despite having spent more than $15 million on regional mass transit studies.
"He told me, 'We aren't allowed to talk about light rail,'" Iorio said. "I told him, 'Ray, those days are over, I'm the mayor and we're going to take those studies off the shelf.'"
In 2006, Iorio unveiled plans for an extensive light-rail system built around a preliminary 20-mile, $1.2 billion route that focused on downtown, with lines stretching to USF's Tampa campus, Hyde Park and the West Shore area.
She proposed using existing CSX rail lines and building tracks to move thousands of passengers around the Bay area, and said it could be built within a decade.
Once again, she said, the county commission declined to take up the issue. Because the tax increase to pay for rail would be levied countywide, the city couldn't go it alone.
Undeterred, Iorio kept pushing to get mass transit on the agenda. She found a new ally in Hillsborough Commissioner Mark Sharpe, who helped persuade board Chairman Ken Hagan to create a transportation task force to work on a transit tax referendum.
Sharpe, a Republican, credits Democrat Iorio with helping to build a renewed sense of cooperation between the city and county, which have for decades been divided by partisan politics.
"It took cooperation between the city and county, between Democrats and Republicans, to get this accomplished," he said. "You don't get anywhere playing partisan politics."
In meetings about light rail â?? county commission and task force meetings and hearings â?? Iorio has been present but usually silent not uttering a word. At a public hearing May 12, just before the commission voted to put the transit tax referendum on the Nov. 2 ballot, Iorio spoke, calling the issue "the most important public policy decision of the century."
"This is good plan and a plan that will move this community forward," she said in a brief presentation. "Many of the things that we can point to in our community that have paid great dividends â?? they have all taken an initial investment, and this one will be worth it."
The board voted 5-2 for the referendum.
Three-quarters of the money from the proposed sales tax increase, if approved by voters, would help pay for light rail connecting downtown Tampa with the USF area and the West Shore district, as well as expanded bus service. The remainder would help pay for road projects throughout the county â?? added as an attempt to help sell the tax to voters.
The light-rail system would connect to the planned high-speed rail between Tampa and Orlando, for which the federal government pledged $1.25 billion this year.
Ed Turanchik, a former county commissioner and advocate of mass transit, credits Iorio with keeping the issue alive despite reluctance by other local leaders to embrace it.
"Iorio was the first mayor who was willing to expend political capital by putting the issue at the top of her agenda," said Turanchik, who spearheaded the advocacy effort to win federal high-speed rail money funds. "She is the undisputed champion of mass transit."
Tampa, Turanchik said, is losing business to cities such as Charlotte, N.C., Phoenix and Seattle, where new rail systems are helping to redevelop their urban centers.
"You can't build a city without transit," he said. "Transportation is the lifeblood of a city."
Issue not going away
Iorio leaves office in March because of term limits, and most of the candidates who have filed or plan to run for mayor say they support a passenger rail system.
"Whoever the next mayor is, they'll have to continue to advocate for mass transit," said candidate Tom Scott, chairman of the City Council.
Candidate Bob Buckhorn also supports a rail system for the city and said even if the referendum fails, he intends to push for mass transit if he is elected.
"We don't have a choice," he said. "We have to have the ability to move people."
Hillsborough County Commissioner Rose Ferlita, who is expected to run for mayor, supports the concept of mass transit but said she isn't convinced that light rail is the way to go and wants more input from the public.
Iorio, who plans to spend the next few months campaigning for approval of the sales tax referendum and talking about the need for mass transit, said whoever replaces her will need to pick up the ball and keep going.
Iorio said whoever replaces her will need to press on.
"They don't have any business being Tampa's mayor if they don't see mass transit as a key issue," she said. "Whether they like it or not, this issue will be on their desk."
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