Thursday, December 13, 2012

Buckhorn promotes light rail: I'm open to any options

Posted By on Thu, Dec 13, 2012 at 10:23 AM

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On Tuesday, at an event sponsored by the Tampa Downtown Partnership, Hillsborough County Metropolitan Planning Organization chair Ray Chiaramonte continued his PowerPoint presentation tour about the results of a recent survey regarding light rail proposal in the county.

Chiaramonte has a story to tell about why voters in the county rejected the 2010 one-cent-sales-tax measure, and what it will take to get something similar passed in 2014. One of his talking points is how such a measure must take 65 percent of the revenues generated from the tax to put into roads and other infrastructures outside of Tampa, with 35 percent going toward light rail in the city.

An idea on the "menu of options" is to have the City of Tampa put up its own referendum, since light rail actually won inside the city in 2010. But that's not currently allowed by state law, so local lawmakers are lobbying for a legislator to sponsor such a bill calling for some of the state's biggest municipalities — like Tampa, St. Petersburg, Orlando and Jacksonville — to be part of it.

But Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn admitted that even if a local representative agrees to sponsor such a bill, the odds of it actually passing "will be a very difficult, if not an impossible road to hoe."

Buckhorn added that it needs to be part of a menu (again that term) of potential transportation sources, and it should appeal to Republican lawmakers.

"It is conservative in that it gives the local decision making down to the local level. It is not a tax, it is merely giving the people the opportunity to choose for themselves what their quality of life will be. We're going to continue to push that, and push that hard," he said.

After admitting that its prospects are dim, would the mayor be the man to step up and lead the transit effort in Tampa? Would he lead the issue that Chiaramonte insisted is needed to get the measure passed in a few years?

Buckhorn isn't interested in anointing himself anything, at the moment. He said he's open to options that put together another proposal on rail, but insists it can't be driven by bureaucrats like himself — but by a grassroots movement.

"You're going to have to get rank and file Tampanians and residents of Hillsborough County involved, get involved in a very thorough discussion of what rail is, what the value and economic impact is. Not try to scare them by saying we don't have it and we're falling further and further behind. And that takes awhile," Buckhorn said.

The Tampa mayor said he firmly believes rail is "in our future," but he's not sure when it will be.

"I need rail. It will work in the city, it will spur a huge amount of economic development if we have rail. Even if we have to have a pilot project, I think people when they see it and touch it, when they see how successful it will be, it will change people's minds," he said.

Buckhorn has taken the lead in being a public advocate number one for Tampa's beleaguered streetcar system. In September he rallied his colleagues at the Tampa Port Authority who were poised to kill the annual $100,000 subsidy.

He said the situation with the trolley cars is at a "tipping point," where it's now evident that it will never be able to pay for itself.

"If you're going to subsidize it, let's make it available more often at a cheaper fare," he said.

That could mean free or extremely discounted fares, and more frequent runs — currently, it doesn't begin service until noon on weekdays, and 11 a.m. on weekends.

Buckhorn said that hosting the Republican Convention sucked the energy out of a lot of initiatives in 2012, but throughout the next six months he intends to refocus on issues that have been "lingering out there," such as transportation.

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