Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Hillsborough County Metropolitan Planning Organization director says it's time to talk about light rail again

Posted By on Tue, Dec 11, 2012 at 10:31 AM

In the dark: Hillsborough MPO Chair Ray Chiaramonte says politicians in Tampa and Hillsborough need to start talking about rail again
  • In the dark: Hillsborough Metropolitan Planning Organization Chair Ray Chiaramonte said politicians in Tampa and Hillsborough need to start talking about the light rail again
This fall, Ray Chiaramonte — the executive director of the Hillsborough County Metropolitan Planning Organization — has been making the rounds before various local government agencies, as well as other organizations. He's been touting the results of a series of public surveys taken amongst Hillsborough voters about what it might take for them to support public funding for a mass-transit system in the region.

As CL reported last week, those focus groups have determined that county voters would support a half-cent sales tax for transportation improvements, including the beginnings of a light rail system (the measure that was defeated in Hillsborough in 2010 was for a full penny tax).

Tuesday morning, Chiaramonte brought his traveling PowerPoint demonstration to Jackson's Bistro, at an event sponsored by the Tampa Downtown Partnership. In addition to the polling data he recounted before other forums, the Hillsborough MPO chair was emphatic that somebody, anybody, needs to lead the way in the county if the light rail will come back before the voters in 2014.

"HART has not been willing to jump back in," he said, referring to Hillsborough's transit authority, which led the planning for the initiative two years ago.

Of his own speaking tour, he said, "Somebody needed to take the lead to begin talking about it again. Like it's not a 'toxic' thing to discuss."

For the past year, officials in Pinellas County have been talking about constructing a light rail system, tired of waiting to see what Hillsborough might do. Over the weekend, the Tampa Bay Times quoted Brad Miller, PSTA's CEO, as saying that his board is looking at a sales tax referendum in 2014.

Chiaramonte said it was time for Tampa and or Hillsborough County officials to get organized, and "come out from under desks" to tackle the issue head on. "We need to get out of the doldrums," he cajoled. "The business community is waiting for some direction."

Local officials have discussed allowing Florida cities to have the authority to put up tax referendums, something that only Florida counties currently have the power to do. But that means changing the law in Tallahassee, and to this date no state lawmaker has said they would support such a bill. This presupposes that somebody in local government has been making calls inquiring about such support, something that isn't known at this time. However Chiaramonte said that Beth Alden from the MPO was in Bradenton on Tuesday, where the local legislative delegation met with local lawmakers to discuss bills that they hope will be proposed in the 2013 session. A similar meeting is scheduled with Hillsborough lawmakers next Monday.

Having worked with this polling data for awhile, Chiaramonte is unstinting in his directness when it comes to how he believes the electorate feels.

"People in the unincorporated part of the (Hillsborough) county aren't interested in rail. They're interested in intersection improvements and things that make their driving better," he said.

This is why Chiaramonte said any measure that comes back before the county should have a mix of about 65 percent of a tax (be it a half-cent or full penny) for road improvements in the county, and 35 percent to construct a light rail system in Tampa.

The 2010 measure that went down to defeat in Hillsborough (but did win in Tampa and Temple Terrace) had a mixture as well — transit was 75 percent, roads 25 percent. But Chiaramonte said that point wasn't emphasized at all, another mistake by the groups trying to get the measure passed.

He also said that if lawmakers opt to put a measure up in 2014, he would advocate that they do so during the August primary, not the November general election. He said the ballot should be considerably smaller, therefore it would be easier to educate the public on the issue.

"The more complexity you put in, the harder it is to make that average voter understand what you're doing," he said.

In fact, he said 20 percent of Hillsborough voters didn't vote on the matter back in November of 2010.

"We need to be crystal clear with the voters about what is we're going to do," he said.

Also speaking at the forum was Clarence Eng from Kimley-Horn and Associates. He was there to discuss the role that streetcars play in redevelopment around the country and how it could have that same impact in Tampa.

He said that streetcars, which were privately funded decades ago in many American cities and actually helped pay for other transportation needs, foster transit-oriented development.

He also centered much of his talk around plans for a new streetcar system in Fort Lauderdale. That's the 2.7 mile Wave Streetcar that will run on rails embedded in existing street lanes to be shared with cars.

Eng said the project has been championed by South Florida Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who is also the chair of the Democratic National Committee. He also said that it's more critical than ever to be clear about the plan when applying for federal funding. He said that with MAP-21, the new transportation and funding bill, "if you don't stand really clear ... you will not get the funds. It's so competitive now," he said, adding that Fort Lauderdale was "really smart in figuring out the package."

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