Riding the light rails in Tampa Bay 

Will the business community step up to support light rail in Tampa Bay?

Earlier this month, members of the Hillsborough County Commission and Tampa City Council shared a meal with members of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce.

It was a confab that happens a few times a year, and on this occasion, along with the chicken and vegetables, light rail was on the menu.

Hillsborough County Commissioners will vote next month on a measure that would ask citizens to vote for a 1-cent sales tax to support transportation, predominantly construction of a regional system of electric rail cars that would begin with a West Shore/USF line and eventually run through three counties. The proposal in Hillsborough County has been led by TBARTA, the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transit Authority, created by the state legislature in 2007.

Local pols know that the measure must get buy-in from the business community if it's going to have a chance to be successful a year from now. But on this day, Tampa City Council Chairman Thomas Scott said he was waiting for somebody, anybody in that community to step up.

"I still want to raise the question -- that is, with our partners. Most of these things [light rail projects] have been public/private partnerships. But I don't think we've heard somebody step up. That's a huge piece."

The room fell silent for a few moments.

Then Chamber of Commerce President Henry Gonzalez responded, stating succinctly that "the Chamber supports the concept of light rail." But as the year-long campaign to persuade county voters in the worst recession in decades begins, where is the evidence of that support?

Perhaps the biggest proponent of light rail on the County Commission, Mark Sharpe, says local businesses will become big boosters. He says the only problem right now is that "they don't understand how the process works."

But Sharpe sounds downright evangelistic when it comes to his belief that major entities in Tampa, such as the Moffitt Cancer Center, USF and Pepin Distributing, are totally into helping Tampa enter the 21st century with a transportation alternative.

And the Chamber's Gonzalez says there's a reason why the Chamber doesn't have a more substantive opinion. There's no ballot measure yet.

"As soon as they announce the ultimate funding source, the various lines -- which route will be the first route -- that's when we'll come out and endorse, or not endorse."

A major push from the Tampa Bay Partnership is expected; CL made several attempts to get a comment from the group, but had not received a response at press time.

Despite the fact that many citizens think Tampa Bay area is woefully behind the rest of the country when it comes to transportation, the Chamber's Gonzalez admits that personally, it was only after his recent trips to Charlotte, North Carolina, and Denver (communities which have recently created light rail systems) that he saw the light.

"I saw the related business opportunities. It's like creating waterfront property. From a developer's perspective, it's great. And it appeals to those who are against urban sprawl."

But having said that, Gonzalez says that the Chamber is not equipped to help out much in any public campaign, because of what he calls a lack of resources (but what some critics say call a lack of priorities).

Do business interests need to be in support of light rail in order for it to pass in Hillsborough next year? Alan Wulkan believes so. He's with InfraConsult LLC, an infrastructure consulting firm based in Phoenix, and says he's been involved with 15 to 20 such projects going back to the 1970s.

Wulkan says there needs to be a strong combination of business and neighborhood associations working in tandem. But he says that these days, businesses don't need to be dragged kicking and screaming to support the concept.

"If you ask business leaders their top issues these days in trying to attract new companies, it's usually transportation and education. They have a lot at stake."

Wulkan recently appeared before the Hillsborough County Transportation Task Force and is now being paid by HART, the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority, to consult on the referendum proposal.

It's not only light rail that is inspiring alternative transportation enthusiasts (the current plan would have the first routes running by 2018). There is now an active campaign for high speed rail in Florida.

Ed Turanchik is the man behind ConnectUs, the local organization that is working to get $2.5 billion in federal funding to build a high speed rail link between Tampa and Orlando. He says local businesses couldn't be more supportive of this concept.

The former Hillsborough County Commissioner says that shortly after President Obama announced in April that there would be $8 million in stimulus funds available for high speed rail projects, he met up with Stuart Rogel from the Tampa Bay Partnership and Jacob Stuart from the Central Florida Partnership, and said they all united at that point to bring those dollars to Florida. (There are 272 different groups around the country who have applied for such funding.)

Some observers have sensed a divide between Tampa and Eastern Hillsborough County in potential support for the light rail project. Recently, Commissioner Ken Hagan, in emphasizing why a full quarter of revenues from the penny sales tax would go to roads, said that 95 percent of the people in the County would never use the light rail service.

But his colleague, Mark Sharpe, disagrees with that math. He says the Brandon Chamber will host a forum on transit just days before the BOCC votes on putting the proposal on the ballot (though CL could not confirm this), and believes that people will want to use the service once they see it up and running.

But there will be opposition. Right now, the most articulate spokesman against it is Hillsborough County Commissioner Jim Norman, whose complaints are multifold. He doesn't like the fact that HART, and not TBARTA, is the agency which is leading the project.

He thinks a penny sales tax is too much. "We're a conservative county," he pleaded to his colleagues at the Chamber meeting. Norman has also shown discomfort with having Tampa and Hillsborough County leading the way, countering that the approach should be more regional, à la Tampa Bay Water.

Another critic is former County Commissioner and now State Senator Ronda Storms. She told this reporter earlier this summer that the one cent sales referendum "will go down in flames."

Storms admitted that even though people don't want to be stuck in traffic, she flatly declared "they're not going to pay for it." She says that there's an anti-rail sentiment in the circles in which she hangs, and she's not hearing anybody ask to have their taxes raised.

No doubt such an argument still has power, particularly in some parts of the county. But a coalition that includes environmentalists, popular lawmakers (none bigger than Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio, whose initial white paper on mass transit is considered to be the catalyst in this most recent effort) and businesses small and large could be a formidable alliance. The Tampa Bay area could ride into the 21st century yet.

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