Crossing county lines
Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio has reached across the county line to find support for regional mass transit.
She discovered two powerful allies in Pasco County commissioners Anne Hildebrand and Pat Mulieri.
Hildebrand is a member of the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority board and vice chairwoman of the Pasco County Metropolitan Planning Commission. Mulieri's district spans central and south Pasco County, including Wesley Chapel.
The three elected officials attended a mobility forum Sept. 22 at Wharton High School to address transportation needs and improvements in the New Tampa and Wesley Chapel area.
The two growing communities are connected by Bruce B. Downs Boulevard, a heavily congested thoroughfare where light rail advocates hope to see commuter rail service in the future. Hillsborough County traffic statistics show 60,000 vehicles travel Bruce B. Downs Boulevard through New Tampa daily.
Iorio, Hildebrand and Mulieri spoke at the forum in support of mass transit, which would include light rail and bus service, to transport as many as 85,000 urban and suburban commuters per day by 2035.
Hillsborough County voters will to go to the polls Nov. 2 to decide whether to pass a local sales tax to pay for mass transit. If approved, the local sales tax in Hillsborough would increase by 1 penny on the dollar, from 7 cents to 8 cents.
"I care about this issue because it is the issue of the 21st century for our community," Iorio said. "The one thing we don't have is an investment in our transportation system, and we are being left behind."
Hildebrand agreed, saying it is important to recognize transportation issues do not stop at the county line.
"We need to have rail," she said. "We need to have options, so we can compete nationally" for jobs and major events.
"As a region, we must move to the next level."
Representatives from the Hillsborough and Pasco MPOs, TBARTA, Hillsborough Area Regional Transportation Authority and the Florida Department of Transportation told the audience of about 170 people, including 29 from Pasco County, they were there to educate voters on transportation issues affecting north Hillsborough and south and central Pasco County.
They discussed various forms of mass transit - light rail, regional and express bus service, and personalized Flex and circulator route areas - to carry people from downtown Tampa, Tampa International Airport and the University of South Florida to parts of southern Pasco County.
Hillsborough officials estimate the projects could cost as much as $15 billion to build. About 75 percent of the money would go to HART to operate light rail and expanded bus service, and the other 25 percent would be used for road improvements.
All eyes are on Hillsborough County. Light rail supporters are putting their faith in the prospect of Pasco and Pinellas residents following Hillsborough's lead, if the ballot item passes in November.
"We are looking to Tampa to see what you will do with your referendum," Mulieri said. "The future is the ability to move people."
Pasco is ready to strip its image as a county of bedroom communities for Tampa.
Mulieri, Hildebrand and a Pasco County MPO official touted the county's ability - with a population of more than 400,000 - to support big business.
The Hillsborough and Pasco County Transportation Plan includes scheduled improvements for Bruce B. Downs Boulevard, Cross Creek Boulevard in New Tampa, State Roads 54 and 56 and Interstates 75 and 275. The projects aim to accommodate roads, light rail, expanded public bus service, bicyclists and pedestrians.
Audience reaction was mixed. Supporters said light rail is long overdue. Opponents said now is not the time to burden struggling taxpayers with additional fees.
"I'm very weary about how the money will be spent," said Richard Wright of West Tampa, who sought to propose eight demands to the sales tax referendum.
Bill Schneider of Tampa Palms said he thinks light rail advocates have done a poor job of explaining the service benefits to residents who live in unincorporated Hillsborough County.
Linda Saul-Sena, a former Tampa City Council member who is running for a seat on the Hillsborough County Commission, said the Tampa Bay area led by Hillsborough County is at a crossroad.
"This is a change in our community that will make our community a more livable place," she said.