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Put traffic fixes in fast lane, leaders urge

The chamber of commerce says changes in commuters' habits and road quality are necessary for the county to unclog its snarled roadways.

By TAMARA LUSH, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 7, 2002

TAMPA -- When Sandy MacKinnon, chairman of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, stood at the front of the Pierce Middle School cafeteria Thursday night, he could see that only a handful of people had shown up for the meeting.

More would trickle in, he promised the group of about 20, half of whom were chamber members or politicians running for office.

"They're probably stuck in traffic," he said, then paused. "That's a joke."

Nobody laughed.

And that is precisely why MacKinnon and the chamber called the meeting.

Traffic in Hillsborough County has been horrible for years, and it isn't getting better. Nearly 80 percent of commuters in the county drive to work alone. Even when there is public transportation available, such as a HARTline bus, few people use it. According to recent Census data, only about 6,300 people, or 1.4 percent of the commuting population, take the bus to work.

Traffic problems hinder economic development, chamber leaders say, and helped cost the area its bid for the 2012 Summer Olympics. A U.S. Olympic Committee group surveying potential sites gave the Tampa Bay area a failing grade on transportation.

"Something needs to be done," said Dan Mahurin, president of SunTrust Bank and a chamber member. "It is a daunting task."

So the chamber is embarking on a summerlong public awareness project to inform residents about the area's traffic problems and drum up support for changes.

The group is holding public hearings and meeting with countless politicians and planners. It is handing out a 26-page study with road maps that look like Etch-A-Sketch drawings. It is showing people a gloomy video that says people in the county spend 70 minutes a day in their cars, that bad roads cause people to spend an average of $358 in car repairs and that Tampa Bay has the deadliest roads in the nation for pedestrians.

While the chamber may not be telling commuters anything new, it is broaching one sensitive subject in its informational meetings: how to pay for all the proposed fixes.

"It always gets down to the money, eventually," Mahurin said.

Inside the 26-page report, after the descriptions of the streetcar and light rail and bus ridership numbers, there are several pages devoted to taxes.

Raising taxes.

According to chamber figures, it will cost $9.1-billion to make all the transportation upgrades. After government funding, there will be a $4.1-billion shortfall. The county has the option to levy certain taxes; some ideas include a 5-cent gas tax or raising the sales tax.

MacKinnon said it is unlikely the chamber will endorse raising a specific tax. Instead, the group will probably push for letting citizens vote on a tax increase to pay for transportation projects.

He acknowledged that it is unusual for a business group to even discuss the idea of raising taxes, but said that the transportation problems are so dire in the Tampa Bay area that the congestion threatens the quality of life.

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