News Column

Hillsborough Planners Consider Revised Light Rail Proposal

Nov. 27, 2012

Ted Jackovics

Two years ago, Hillsborough County voters were asked to approve a sales tax increase that would have brought the first light rail to the Tampa area. The referendum failed miserably.

Although Tampa voters backed the initiative by a slim margin, voters outside the city were near unanimous in voting against a 1 cent sales tax for light rail and some road and bus improvements.

The size of the defeat, coupled with the momentum of tea party conservatives, left many predicting no one would pitch such an idea again in Hillsborough County for many years.

They predicted wrong.

The staff of the county's Metropolitan Planning Organization is asking its board to consider a mass transit plan that has some similarities to the failed 2010 referendum, but also important differences. An MPO policy committee will discuss the idea at a meeting this morning.

As in the 2010 referendum, the plan would use a sales tax increase to fund mass transit. This project, though, is much less ambitious -- and less expensive -- than the one voters so soundly rejected two years ago.

The centerpiece of the MPO's idea is a "hybrid" light-rail project to showcase what light rail could achieve.

The initial project would run only between downtown and the University of South Florida campus. That would be a dramatically shorter route than the one called for in 2010, which would have created a light rail system running from the northeast suburbs to downtown Tampa to Tampa International Airport.

The smaller scale of the project also would carry a smaller price tag -- in this case, a half-cent increase in the sales tax instead of a full penny.

"We found that in 2010 voters decided it was just not the right time to raise taxes and that 1 cent was too much," said Beth Alden, the MPO's assistant director. "We thought, 'Let's scale it back do something more modest.' "

The 12-mile rail line could cost between $240 million and $475 million, or $20 million to $40 million a mile. The 2010 light rail project turned down by voters was estimated to cost upwards of $800 million, or more than $60 million per mile.

The cost to operate the trains and maintain the equipment, tracks, and stations would range from $8 million to $20 million per year.

A major cost savings would result from using equipment heavier than traditional light rail but lighter than conventional commuter rail cars. The heavier equipment would meet federal guidelines allowing the rail system to use CSX freight tracks, though a deal with CSX still would have to be worked out.

The hybrid rail idea came out of an 18-month analysis of voter attitudes on transportation conducted by the MPO.

Holding another countywide referendum on increasing the sales tax would take a vote of the Hillsborough County Commission, but another funding option could be available.

Several mayors across the state, including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, want to revise state law to allow cities to hold their own referendums on transit taxes. The state Legislature would have to support such a change, which Buckhorn said would "give cities the ability to determine their own futures."

A citywide vote on increasing the sales tax would bring in less money than a countywide referendum because the increased sales tax would be applied only within the city limits.

Buckhorn and others say improved transit could enhance the area's image and economy and help increase Tampa's wages, which lag many comparably sized cities. Al Austin, a Tampa developer and Republican Party mainstay who led efforts to recruit the Republican National Convention to Tampa, said after the convention he wanted to help a light-rail initiative succeed here.

But Karen Jaroch, a founder of the local tea party movement, said Monday that light rail should not be a priority. Instead, she said, transportation tax dollars should be used for projects that will significantly alleviate traffic congestion.

"Light rail will not do this and can actually increase traffic snarls downtown," Jaroch said. "I am still involved in the grassroots and I don't believe anything has changed to alter general opposition to a taxpayer funded light rail system on either side of the bay."

"I think we ought to wait and see how successful the North-South Bus Rapid Transit system works out next year and see if it is financially sustainable. Bus Rapid Transit holds more promise, in my opinion, than light rail. It is more flexible and a fraction of the cost of light rail."

Distributed by MCT Information Services



Source: (c) 2012 the Tampa Tribune (Tampa, Fla.)


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