Two years after Hillsborough County voters rejected a 1-cent sales tax proposal on light rail, there appears to be new energy emerging in favor of expansion of transit options in the Tampa Bay area, including light rail.
Members of a new group called Connect Tampa Bay say their goal is to advocate for transportation options in both Pinellas and Hillsborough County, and not just settle for the status quo.
Last week Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said that if light rail is going to come back on the ballot in Hillsborough County anytime soon, it has to be driven by the grass roots. And that's where Connect Tampa Bay steps in.
"We're solution-agnostic," says Tampa political consultant Kevin Thurman, one of the founding board members of the group, emphasizing that they're not pushing any one particular form of transporation. "However, we can get to the point where we can have more options for people in Tampa Bay," he says, adding that those options include bus, trains, bicycling, and potentially even water taxis.
Other founding board members include Tampa attorney Brian Willis (who served on TBARTA's Citizen Advisory Committee from 2009 to 2011), Brian Seel, a project engineer with the Beck Group and the vice chair of Emerge Tampa, and urban planner Brandie Miklus.
Thurman says that an early supporter of Connect Tampa Bay is Mayor Bob Buckhorn. "He believes that something like this needs to exist," he says. Buckhorn told CL last week that "you're going to have to get rank and file Tampanians and residents of Hillsborough County involved… in a very thorough discussion of what rail is, what the value and economic impact is."
Hillsborough County Metropolitan Planning Organization head Ray Chiaramonte has been making the rounds lately, discussing transportation data from polls of Hillsborough residents taken over the past year and a half. The results have been encouraging for light rail advocates.
Connect Tampa Bay's Brian Willis says the information has given his group confidence in moving forward.
"That confirmed what I was hearing anecdotally, which is that this is a big concern for people."
Board members say their group will also be active in following developments in Pinellas County over the next year, where PSTA chief executive officer Brad Miller says the intention is to bring a 1-cent sales tax referendum before voters in 2014 to help construct a light rail system.
And they intend to hold meetings anywhere and everywhere, in homes and at public facilities, to find out what people in the Tampa Bay area truly want when it comes to enhancing their transportation needs.