Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Public's turn to decide whether there should be a ballot measure for light rail in Hillsborough County

Posted By on Wed, May 12, 2010 at 4:55 PM

click to enlarge Light rail

Despite months (if not years) of debate, the Hillsborough County Commissioners have one final vote to take on putting a referendum for a one-cent sales tax for transportation on the November ballot, and that should happen at the conclusion of Thursday night's public hearing on the matter.

Commissioners have carved out four hours for debate, which will take place at the 3,000-seat All People's Life Center in Tampa (6105 E. Sligh Avenue), and broadcast live on the county's government access channel.  Commissioners will wait until they see the actual size of the crowd before determining how long public speakers will get (somewhere between 1-2 minutes).  Organizers also say they hope to separate the crowd into supporters and opponents of the measure.

All indications are that the vote will be 5-2 in support;  Commissioners Al Higginbotham and Jim Norman have been relentless in attacking the measure. Still, as others (such as Commission Chair Ken Hagan) have said, the Commissioners are not voting for or against the tax itself; they are voting on whether to give the public a chance, via a ballot referendum, to decide whether or not to tax themselves to begin the first leg of a light rail system.

Norman has been vociferous in blasting HART —  the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority — for being the entity to handle the rail plan, and questioning if they even have a plan.  But as the Tampa Tribune wrote in an editorial on Wednesday,

Annual inflation is assumed to be 2.5 percent. An operating reserve of 25 percent will be maintained to cover unexpected problems.

Revenue from the penny sales tax is expected to increase 4.04 percent per year until 2025. That increase is based on an expected increase in population as well as modest economic growth. The outlook for 2026 through 2040 is slightly less optimistic.

The plan covers the anticipated costs to build and operate the system, and to maintain it.

Riders' fares will cover about 15 percent of the costs at first and increase to 20 percent by 2022.

"This is conservative," the HART plan states, "since most light rail  systems in operation generate about a 30 percent fare-box return."

Thursday night's meeting will be interesting just to see who is better organized at getting their side out.  Actually, we should say it will be interesting to see how many of the pro-rail contingent get their people out.  The critics of the proposal are ready and prepared to tell the Commissioners that the last thing the region needs is a new tax. As GOP House District 57 candidate Dana Young mentioned at a debate earlier this week, the potential increase would bring the sales tax in the county to 14% (which the Tribune reports would break down to an increase of $12 a month, if you or your family spends $1,200 a month on taxable items).

Supporters of the rail tax are asking those who will attend the meeting to wear green.  No sartorial selections have been made in advance for critics of the proposal.

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