How to sell a train to an uncertain public
October 11, 2009
The success of a possible referendum next year on transit improvements will depend largely on how people feel about growth and whether they believe a rail system will help the local economy.
The experience of other cities is that rail stations attract high-quality residential growth along with the kind of good jobs cities are fighting each other to win. Without rail, Tampa faces a recruiting disadvantage.
A poll done this summer for HART, the Hillsborough County transit agency, found that a third of those contacted by telephone understand the benefits and definitely would vote for a higher sales tax to pay for transit improvements, including a passenger rail line. Another 34 percent define themselves as probable supporters.
If half the probable supporters do vote yes, that leaves the issue deadlocked at 50-50. Transit proponents need to make a convincing appeal to every group. The definites need to be reassured the project will be efficiently built and well managed. The probables and undecideds need to hear specifics of how the economy will benefit. And opponents need to be shown what's in it for them.
The latter group is only 15 percent, and the HART poll showed some of the resistance diminishing if a portion of the tax is spent on road improvements, as is in fact planned.
A challenge in crafting the ballot language is to win opponents and the undecided without diverting so much to non-transit projects that rail and bus supporters change their minds.
Hillsborough County has never been strict about requiring suburban growth to pay for the roads it needs. The sales tax revenue should not be a gift to developers. It should not be used to build new roads for new developments, and there is no indication that it will be.
But it's smart, and fair, to invest some of the tax revenue in areas far from rail stations and bus lines. That will include widening some roads and extending hiking and bike trails.
An opinion survey earlier in the year by the City-County Planning Commission on the quality of local life found that the recession has changed some key priorities. Folks are now more worried about economic opportunity than traffic. When asked what they think is the best sustainable solution to transportation problems, they ranked the options this way: widen roads, build commuter rail, improve bus service and last, build new roads.
Asked if future growth should be subsidized by current residents, they said no by a resounding four-to-one margin.
Subsidizing new jobs is a totally different issue.
"The case for transit," Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe tells us, "is jobs, jobs and more jobs. The really big projects that we are working on in Tampa Bay are all looking to our transit system - and the promise of building a truly first-rate system, as part of their rationale for moving to Tampa."
Getting that message out is the key to winning majority support for rail.
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