Rail advocates hear how Utah overcame foes
April 17, 2010
It's not just Tampa where light rail is a touchy subject. In Utah, some opponents considered plans for a light-rail system a "communist plot," jokes Robert Grow, a civic leader in Salt Lake City.
On Friday, Grow was keynote speaker at a conference called One Bay, an effort by the Tampa Bay Partnership and other local organizations to create a vision for the Tampa Bay area. It was held at the Tampa Convention Center.
Urban sprawl and other topics were on the agenda, but the potential referendum on a light-rail system dominated the speeches Friday. If it makes November's ballot, Hillsborough County residents will vote on a 1-cent sales tax to fund light rail and other transportation projects.
Grow is a big supporter of Utah's 10-year-old light-rail system, which he said has exceeded that state's expectations. He heads a regional public-private organization called Envision Utah that didn't spearhead light rail in Utah but did support it.
Originally, a small but vocal minority fought hard against the rail plan, he said. Voters eventually rejected a sales tax to fund light rail in Utah in 1992, according to the Salt Lake Tribune.
Rail advocates caught a break in 1995, however. Salt Lake City was awarded the 2002 Winter Olympics, and shortly after, the federal government pitched in to cover most of the cost of the $312 million rail project. Since then, the light-rail system has grown on voters and they twice approved sales tax increases to expand the rail line.
About 500,000 people rode it every month when the rail system opened in 1999.
Today, it gets about a million riders a month, the newspaper reported.
Grow urged the politicians who support a rail system in the Bay area to keep up the fight.
"What a terrible time to vote to raise your taxes!" Grow said of the timing of the local rail effort.
Still, he insisted there is never a perfect time. He also said the entire nation is green with envy over the way the Obama administration awarded $1.25 billion to Central Florida to jump-start the Tampa-to-Orlando high-speed rail project.
The Tampa Bay Partnership is supporting the proposed light-rail system in Hillsborough County and the bullet train, and many of the politicians there did, too. Cheers rang out Friday when Grow showed the audience the TV commercials that light-rail advocates in Utah ran just before the rail vote.
"This is your opportunity to win or lose for Florida, big time," Grow told the crowd.
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