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Mayor proposes mass transit plan

Mayor Pam Iorio used her State of the City to call for an expanded bus system that would lessen road congestion.

By BILL VARIAN
Published March 29, 2005


TAMPA -- Local mass transit is antiquated and inadequate, Mayor Pam Iorio said Tuesday.

She called on city and county leaders to come up with a plan to make it better and put it before the voters in a countywide referendum.

Iorio pitched the idea during her second State of the City address before city employees and community leaders, including the new head of the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority - which runs the HARTline bus system.

City roads are crowded and will get worse, and adding new lanes isn't going to solve all traffic congestion, she said. She wants to see more buses, more routes and more frequent service, and proposed asking voters for the money to pay for it.

She didn't specify how she would ask voters to pay for the bus system upgrade.

"It is time we come together as a community - city, county, HARTline, the citizens - and decide what kind of mass transit system we need and must have for the future - devise a plan and put it before the voters," Iorio said. "We cannot fail future generations. Let's plan and fund today alternatives to an ever-increasing congested road system."

The proposal was the one surprise in a speech in which Iorio otherwise touted progress on goals she set when she was elected two years ago to make Tampa a more "livable" city. Among the highlights: Crime rates are down, people are moving downtown and there is a renewed focus on downtown.

She pledged to lure jobs and home construction to East Tampa, successfully redevelop the Central Park public housing complex and get going on a new riverwalk downtown.

"The state of the city is good," she said.

But her transit referendum proposal appeared curiously timed, particularly if her plan calls for higher taxes, which would be the main reason it would go to a vote.

Hillsborough commissioners, who would have to approve of holding a referendum, have twice in the past five years rejected proposals to ask voter permission to raise an assortment of taxes to pay for roadway and transit system enhancements.

Hillsborough Commissioner Tom Scott led the latest effort in 2003, which died in a 4-3 vote. He noted Tuesday that this vote occurred when a majority of commissioners were Democrats, himself included. Now the board has a 5-2 Republican majority whose members have expressed strong opposition to raising any taxes and fees.

"I do not see anything at this point going to voters in terms of a referendum," Scott said. "You've got to be kidding. Unless the mayor knows something I don't know."

Commissioner Mark Sharpe, newly elected as a Republican in November, said he welcomes any conversation with the city on how to more effectively and efficiently serve citizens. But he expressed caution over any proposal to talk about raising taxes for buses or any other form of mass transit. Talk about transportation fixes need to start with roads, he said.

Further, he said, he felt such a discussion could set up new HARTline executive director Raymond Miller for failure as he tries to redirect the struggling bus agency.

"Some of the problem we've had in the past is that people have tried to grab too much," Sharpe said. "Transportation is probably the most important issue in our community in terms of quality of life. But it's a step process."

Miller, the HARTline chief, said he welcomes the attention, but isn't planning to push the idea of raising taxes. That's something for elected officials and the community to decide.

"I was really happy to hear that this is one of her priorities," Miller said. "I'm trying to get everything in order here at HARTline. We have to make sure that we're operating the best system we can with our existing resources."

After her speech Tuesday before nearly 600 people at the Tampa Convention Center, Iorio conceded the political difficulty in getting support for a referendum. And she said she didn't have a defined idea of what she is seeking, other than to say the county's bus system currently is not doing the job.

The South Tampa peninsula is getting clogged by traffic on roads that can't be widened, she said. She was at a meeting recently in Northdale in which a woman feared getting trapped in suburbia when she gets older because the bus system is unreliable.

She said any discussion probably should not emphasize rail too heavily, because the price tags floated with it tend to scare people away. And she said the timing is right, now, particularly in light of new leadership at HARTline.

"I just think we need to start talking about it more," Iorio said. "We need to come up with a plan and put it before voters - "Are you satisfied with this level of mass transit?' I don't think so."

-- Staff writer Bill Varian can be reached at 813 226-3387 or varian@sptimes.com

[Last modified March 29, 2005, 23:11:55]


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