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Hillsborough County votes to have mass transportation summit

7:48 PM, Mar 20, 2013   |    comments
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Tampa, FL -- Mass transit had mass appeal Wednesday in Hillsborough County. Commissioners voted unanimously to make the issue a top priority.

That means light rail, buses and road improvements are back on the table, just two years after Hillsborough County voters said "No."

So why it's back on the front-burner?

The short answer is money.

Commissioners seem convinced the region is losing out on growth opportunities, because business are choosing not to move here and create jobs. They're opting for cities and regions that can better meet the demands of workers who want mass transit options.

Pinellas County recently decided to put to a vote in November 2014 and now Hillsborough may be moving in that direction too.

"They definitely need to improve things," said David Morris, waiting for the bus at South Tampa's Britton Plaza.

Morris needs the bus to get to work six days a week, and that can be stressful because it's often not on time, he says.

"Sometimes it makes me late to work," he says. "Living paycheck to paycheck I depend on my job. I depend on the transit center to get me back and forth there."

Tampa Bay consistently has one of the lowest rankings in the nation when it comes to mass transit. That's a big problem for David and others who rely on it.

It's also a major factor for business considering whether to come here and presumably create jobs in the Bay area.

On Wednesday, Hillsborough County Commission heard from several activist groups, environmental interests, economic experts and a bipartisan coalition of young Republicans and Democrats.

Their collective message? Make mass transit a priority or watch the Bay area die on the vine economically. Young workers will leave. Businesses, they warn, will find other cities.

"Places where there is a transit system that meets the needs of the people," said Tim Heberlein with the Hillsborough County Young Democrats.

David Cabrera, Treasurer for the Tampa Bay Young Republicans, agreed.

"As young people we want options. We don't want conformity. We don't like being told what we have to do," said Cabrera.

Other recent attempts to bring mass transit improvements have failed, including the push for a one-cent sales tax increase two years ago.

Members of Citizens for Organized Sound Transportation (COST) say they'd still oppose light rail, questioning the expense and effectiveness.

But Commissioner Mark Sharpe, who has pushed hard to get the transit issue back on the front-burner, says roads and rail need to be part of the discussion.

"We've gotta be number one in transportation and I'm not satisfied with being at the bottom," said Sharpe.

It's a conversation commissioners voted unanimously to start in about six weeks at a "transportation summit."

There, the county, its three major cities and HART, will all gather to prioritize the region's transit needs.

And perhaps as important is how to pay for it, says Sharpe. "Do it in a cost-affordable way that will not scare the voters."

That may be the key.

If mass transit is going to move forward, supporters will need to find a way to broaden support and make paying for it relevant to people not just in the city, but in the suburbs as well.

Two years ago, a majority of voters in Tampa supported the one-cent increase, but they were out-numbered by people in the suburbs who couldn't see what was in it for them.

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