BUSINESS GETS ONBOARD
Many local business leaders who like government small and taxes low strongly favor increasing Hillsborough County's sales tax to pay for better transportation, including rail transit.
Their support for a bigger investment in buses and roads, plus Tampa's first light-rail system, is based on what they see in similar car-dependent cities and most recently in Phoenix. A 32-member group from the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce just returned from the Arizona city known for its conservative, business-friendly attitude and its new 20-mile rail line, soon to be expanded.
Members of the Tampa group were impressed with how heavily the system is used and how it sparked investment near the line.
Mark MacMillan, owner of Proshred Tampa Bay, said, "Phoenix invested $1.4 billion and got over $7 billion in return in economic activity. If I can invest a dollar and get seven, I'll take that deal."
He said he saw teenagers riding the Phoenix train to a concert.
"Would you rather have them ride with a friend or would you rather have them on the train?" he asked. "Anyone voting no (on the Hillsborough rail plan in November) just hasn't thought about this."
Robin DeLaVergne, executive director of the Tampa General Hospital Foundation, said she sat beside a man in a wheelchair riding the train.
"He said his wife gets him to the train and he gets himself to work. He said it makes him feel so much more independent."
Hillsborough's voters will go to the polls Nov. 2 to decide on a cent-on-the-dollar sales tax increase, with 43 percent dedicated to light rail.
Steve Bernstein of Fisher & Phillips law firm said, "There is a short list of cities that haven't built it. Why is business so behind it? What smart businessperson will tell you he's complacent? Those willing to really dig into the facts will support it."
Lilly Ho-Pehling of consultants Reynolds, Smith & Hills Inc., said, "I don't like wasteful spending. But I look on this as the future of Tampa. Without the infrastructure to move people around, we'll lose economic growth."
On Sept. 20, when Phoenix set a record for the day at 107 degrees, the outdoor stations were busy and the trains were mostly full.
"It's hot out there, and people are using it," Ho-Pehling said. "We cannot not have it. If we get it, and St. Pete and Clearwater get it, it will make life so much easier. I saw junior high students coming home from school on the train."
Doug Pace of Bayshore Solutions said, "At least 10 percent of the riders had bikes. I was extremely shocked. Phoenix has a lot of the issues we have - decentralized, with many small businesses."
Deborah Sheridan of Synovus Bank said the train is "a good draw for business. You go to Detroit and you see a city in desperate straits. The only area with any life is around their people-mover."
Business leaders in Phoenix told the Tampa group why they, like chambers of commerce throughout the Tampa area, support rail. The Phoenix downtown area had quit growing, yet the region continued to gain population. It was clear that highways could not keep up with the growth.
Now that the rail system is rolling, most of the surrounding cities want to join and property values are reported to be rising around the stations. The airport is building an elevated train that will connect to the light-rail stop nearest the airport.
Corey Neil of Bank of Tampa said, "I believe in long-term investment in the community. I believe I will, as a banker, benefit (from improved transit). It will create a better environment for business to operate, including the banking business."
The Phoenix business plan for rail had anticipated 26,000 riders a day and is getting 40,000.
Doug Dieck, who led the Tampa group and is Southeast regional president of Ryan Cos., said, "They've raised fares, decreased trains, yet the ridership continues to grow. Rail will work in Tampa for the same reason it works here and everywhere else."