Why Voters Love Rail Transit In Cities Much Like Tampa

Published: Feb 19, 2007

Rail opponents describe all the new trains carrying passengers in cities across the country as costly failures that fleece taxpayers.

They must not be talking to taxpayers in Dallas, Denver and Portland. Experts from these cities came to Tampa on Friday, hosted by the Metropolitan Planning Organization, to tell local leaders that their residents gladly tax themselves for rail.

All rail cities in the country except Buffalo have expanded their rail lines. Voters in so many places wouldn't support boondoggles. Voters first want to know when transit will be built, how much it will cost and where it will go. When leaders tell them that, they vote yes.

Hillsborough County has never asked voters to approve or reject a rail plan, but that will change soon. The Legislature is expected to create a regional transportation authority for this seven- or eight-county region. It would have the power to run a regional transit system. Multi-jurisdictional transit agencies exist in Denver, Portland and Dallas.

In Denver members are elected. In Portland they're appointed by the governor. In Dallas they're appointed by member jurisdictions, which is the model proposed here.

Clearly, rail interest is growing, with Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio in the lead. Iorio said that "if we can copy what other successful communities have done, we'll be successful."

Here, in a nutshell, is what they have done:


Eight counties asked voters in 2004 to increase the sales tax for transit by four-tenths of a cent, from $.006 per dollar to $.01. The increase adds a 4-cent tax to a $10 purchase. Fifty-eight percent voted yes. Park-and-ride lots are full and the city air is much cleaner, said Cal Marsella, general manager of the Denver Regional Transportation District. And, he said, new development is "stampeding to the rail stations."


The first step came 16 years ago when the transit agency opened high-occupancy-vehicle lanes. Drivers liked them and instantly the agency gained credibility. Dallas now has light rail, with stations about every mile, and also commuter rail to Fort Worth, with stations every five miles. As in Denver, development is booming around the stations.

Doug Allen of Dallas Area Rapid Transit joked about the lack of growth rules: "Our urban growth boundary is Oklahoma." He pointed out that "Dallas is a conservative, business-oriented city, similar to Tampa."


The city has been a pioneer in using rail to promote urban growth. It has seen $5.5 billion in development within walking distance of its rail stations. Its urban vitality has made it a top destination for college-educated people aged 24 to 35.

"We're stealing your kids," said G.B. Arrington, a transit specialist for Parson Brinckerhoff and a longtime leader of Portland's rail movement.

Tampa has many rail examples to follow, and no good excuses to delay.


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