Hillsborough transit tax campaigns likely to gear up soon
May 29, 2010
Lobbying taxpayers to approve a 1-cent sales tax for a new metro transit authority 40 years ago, then-Atlanta Mayor Sam Massell flew over a clogged expressway in a helicopter and shouted through a bullhorn: "You want to get out of this mess? Vote yes."
"And this being the Bible Belt, they thought God was telling them what to do," Massell said in a Georgia Public Broadcasting interview in 2007 about his successful efforts to transform a bus system into the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority.
It's still too early to know whether anyone will be as creative as Massell in campaigning for or against a 1-cent sales tax surcharge to help fund light rail in Hillsborough County's Nov. 2 referendum.
Campaign efforts by advocacy and anti-tax groups, public officials and the business community, however, are expected to surge this summer, shaped by plenty of money and well-worn talking points honed in dozens of similar tax referendums nationwide.
Nationwide since 2000, slightly more than 70 percent of tax measures to fund transportation have passed, according to a survey by the private Center for Transportation Excellence, a Washington-based transit advocate. Despite the recession and the onset of a high profile tax resistance movement, eight transit referendums passed and three failed in 2009.
This year, voters in 30 areas from Walla Walla to Wimauma will choose whether to raise their taxes to fund transportation measures.
So far, the outcomes nationwide are three measures passed and three failed to increase taxes for public transit.
St. Louis drew attention in April, when voters by 63 percent to 37 percent approved a half-cent sales tax increase to restore lost bus service and avoid trimming light rail schedules. A similar measure failed in 1997 and 2008.
Hillsborough County, however, likely will provide the nation's biggest transportation story of the year.
In January, the Obama Administration selected the Tampa-Orlando route for the nation's first high speed rail line.
In November, Hillsborough County residents will decide on the sales tax surcharge that would help fund the area's first light rail system, along with bus and road improvements added to the referendum to broaden its appeal.
If voters approve the sales tax increase to 8 cents on the dollar â?? 6 cents of which by law goes to the state â?? that decision could lay the groundwork for a half-dozen nearby counties to pursue similar plans to support an integrated regional transit plan.
"Two things make Tampa different from anywhere else," said Alan Wulkan, managing partner of InfraConsult LLC of Scottsdale, Az., who was hired nine months ago by the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority for $99,800.
"First, a huge public education effort is needed in Hillsborough County with the high speed rail, TBARTA, HART and county transportation task force initiative. The public is rightfully confused and all of what is happening piecemeal must be clarified.
"Also, Hillsborough's vote will count very heavily on how surrounding counties like Pasco and Pinellas proceed with transportation tax referendums. Frankly, the success of high speed rail is at stake. It's not only the Tampa region, but transportation for the entire Central Florida corridor is at stake."
Public confusion generally begins with people who indicate they do not understand the differences between the Tampa-Orlando high speed rail line and the proposed light rail system whose first phases could link North Tampa, downtown and West Shore.
Complicating matters are myriad transportation planning groups, economic development agencies and advocacy groups, all with their own acronyms.
Among them: HART, which runs the county bus system and would control light rail; TBARTA, the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority whose representatives from seven counties are trying to ensure coordinated regional transportation plans; several MPOs, county-based Metropolitan Planning Organizations that set funding priorities, and FDOT, the state's transportation department with a handful of Tallahassee officials spearheading Florida's high-speed rail initiative.
In addition, two advocacy groups are already weighing in: "Ax the Tax," an Orlando-based group that opposes rail initiatives nationwide, and "Moving Hillsborough Forward," a Tampa coalition backed by the majority of the area's business and economic development groups, are honing referendum strategies that have begun to surface.
"We have successfully led six anti-rail battles in Florida since 1997," said Doug Guetzloe, Ax the Tax chairman and a native of Tampa. "They use the same playbook each time. It's basically an attempt to fund a mandate of which there is no known end price."
Guetzloe's strategy will be to discuss rail costs while rallying support from local and state tea party groups.
"We support buses and most people do," Guetzloe said. "Fixed rail is a 190-year-old technology with a new millennium pricing."
What about light rail investments and ridership and economic development success that Charlotte, Salt Lake City and Portland have reported, along with other cities even more traditionally tied to the auto including Phoenix, Dallas and Houston?
"P.T. Barnum said a fool is born every minute," Guetzloe responded.
Guetzloe expects to raise between $50,000 and $75,000 for the Ax The Rail Tax initiative and expects pro-rail groups to spend between $750,000 and $1 million. Moving Hillsborough Forward will release a financial report at the end of June.
That group is backed by the Tampa Bay Partnership regional economic development group, the Tampa Bay Builders Association, the Greater Tampa Association of Realtors, the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, The Westshore Alliance and the Tampa Downtown Partnership, among others.
Business leaders worry that urban rail transit systems in Charlotte, Denver and elsewhere provide a competitive edge in corporate expansion, relocation and ultimately have an impact on the local area's average wage, which, at $36,094, was about $10,500 behind Dallas and $9,500 behind Atlanta, a Partnership report indicated last year.
"Corporate relocation specialists need to be confidant their employees will have options of how to get to work and to recreation," said David Singer, a Holland & Knight attorney in Tampa who heads Moving Hillsborough Forward.
"Looking at what will happen to this region if the tax doesn't pass is somewhat alarming. We will have no choice if we don't have mobility options but to build more roads."
The campaign in the next few months will reach out across the county to community groups, neighborhood groups and other grassroots contacts to educate individuals and discuss specifics, Singer said. A television campaign won't be launched until later in the summer.
HART commissioned a telephone survey of 600 county residents in July and August 2009 by Ilium Associates Inc. of Bellevue, Wash., which found 33 percent would "definitely" vote for a 1-cent tax increase, and 34 percent would "probably" vote for it. Fifteen percent "definitely" opposed such a measure, and 10 percent would "probably" vote against the measure.
Even advocates like HART consultant Wulkan concede it's going to be a tough vote.
Joe Chillura, a prominent Tampa architect who served on the city council and various county planning organizations, has spoken to many people who say they will not support the transportation tax surcharge.
Chillura proposed the half-cent Community Investment Tax that county voters supported by 53 percent to 47 percent in 1996 to pay for building Raymond James Stadium along with funds for schools, fire and police departments, sidewalks and other infrastructure.
"The question I have is whether the public is ready to embrace any kind of tax in an economic depression," Chillura said. "I've always supported mass transit, but the climate now is one of skepticism.
"But if people know how the money will be spent, it could provide a psychological boost to the light rail issue."
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