Tampa light rail debated again by HART board, Pinellas tackles transit too

8:04 PM, Nov 15, 2010   |    comments
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TAMPA, Florida -- Light rail is not dead in Hillsborough County, but after a transit tax defeat on Election Day, both Hillsborough and Pinellas leaders promise to trudge ahead at a snail's pace.

At a Monday morning meeting of the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit (HART) board, directors voted unanimously to postpone a vote on the future of light rail.  They cited the nearly 60 percent of voters who objected to a one-cent sales tax increase paying for transit improvements.

The transportation referendum would have also created new bus lines and road improvements too.

Previous Coverage:
11/2/10: Tampa light rail routes, stops proposed to HART
10/18/10: Tampa light rail routes, stops proposed to HART
10/13/10: Light rail ads face The Truth Test
10/12/10: What did light rail really cost Phoenix?
10/11/10: Tampa's light rail could resemble Phoenix project

"We heard that elections matter," said Hillsborough Commissioner and HART board member Mark Sharpe.  "Let's sit down; let's take into consideration what the public said; let's not just go on the assumption that there's going to be another referendum or a referendum in two years. And let's have a conversation - and adult-like conversation - with the citizens."

Hillsborough County staffers will still study the best alignment for light rail, since it remains in the county's long-term plans.  They told directors Monday that moving ahead now is paramount to getting the matching federal funds for the $2 billion project.

Monday afternoon, Pinellas County also tackled the transit issue.  Transportation Task Force (TTF) members said they learned lessons from the referendum rejection in Hillsborough County and want more details in place before taking the issue to voters.

Rail remains in Pinellas County's long-term plans too and initial light rail lines would likely take 7-10 years to complete once funding is approved.  But TTF members say they have no interest in rushing for a 2011 vote.

TTF plans to look at a regional approach to light rail, that would include Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco Counties.  The idea will be discussed at TTF's regularly scheduled meeting in December.

Back in 1999, the City of Orlando made a decision similar to that of Hillsborough County residents. It voted down a measure that would have funded a light rail project there.

Now, more than a decade later, work is finally about to begin on a commuter rail line there in Orlando. One of the area's top planners says that lost decade has contributed to dreadful increases in traffic jams and urban sprawl.

"Of course traffic conjestion has continued to get worse.  Our air quality problems have continued to get worse and that is a very serious issue for us right now.  So air quality, public health and quality of life, the economy...all that is very important and transportation plays a very direct role in that.," said Harry Barley, director of MetroPlan Orlando.

One of the largest questions facing supporters of Hillsborough's light rail effort is whether to put the sales tax question back on a future ballot.

Two examples say it may lead to eventually passing the proposal. In Phoenix, where a light rail line just started running last year, voters rejected the project several times before eventually approving it.

And in Orlando, 11 years after a light rail plan was tossed out by elected officials, work is ramping up on SunRail, a larger-scale commuter train line connecting Orlando to its northern and southern suburbs.

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