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Unlikely pair lead push for light rail

Early edition: These political opposites attract broad support for mass transit.

Published November 25, 2006


TAMPA — They are, by almost any definition, an odd couple.

She is a powerful Democrat, owner of a wallet that bulges with political capital; he is a proudly partisan Republican with strong ties to administrations in Tallahassee and Washington, D.C.

They even respond differently when asked about the “odd couple” label. She laughs, delighted with the joke; he scowls and insists the subject is no laughing matter.

On one thing they are solidly united: Pam Iorio, the mayor of Tampa, and Al Austin, successful developer and GOP mega-fundraiser, believe the Tampa Bay area is way behind the curve on mass transit and needs to straighten up now or risk losing billions of dollars of desirable development.

It’s hard to count the number of times rail proposals have been born and have died here. This time, the idea might have a chance, experts say, because it has a powerful and popular political figure taking the lead with backup from a man who can bring the all-important business community with him.

“The fact that you have a mayor with a strong voice and respect within the community who is willing to take the lead, and an individual like Al Austin who is the grandfather of the West Shore area, means it is a nonpartisan issue that can attract the support to become a reality,’’ said Louis Miller, executive director of the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority.

Just a few years ago the federal government wrote off Hillsborough County as a potential recipient of grants for rail because of “a lack of local support.”

Now the Tampa Bay Partnership  is solidly behind improved mass transit with a rail component, Iorio and Austin are leading the charge, and they have brought on board an array of bipartisan supporters unlike anything the region has seen since the Tampa Bay Buccaneers won the Super Bowl.

What’s changed?

“I think we’ve come to recognize just how bad things are and how much we have to do,” Austin said . “We can’t keep building more roads at a cost of $50-million a mile. Yet Florida is growing at a rate of more than 1,000 new residents a day, and many of them are coming here.

“We have to welcome them with more than gridlock.”

What’s at stake, Iorio says, is more than growth.

“It goes to the heart of our quality of life,” she said. “The Baby Boom generation wants choices. When the time comes that they have to give up their cars, they don’t want to be stuck at home in the suburbs. They have an expectation, and it’s a reasonable expectation, of alternate means of transportation, so they can go anywhere they want to and continue to enjoy life fully.”

Iorio has assembled a broad coalition from Tampa and Hillsborough County committed to exploring transportation alternatives.

It includes the West Shore Alliance, the Tampa Downtown Partnership, SunTrust Bank, the law firm Fowler White Boggs Banker, the Committee of 100 of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce and the Hillsborough County Planning Commission, plus present and former political figures.

“It’s a great group, made up of individuals that are community-minded and community-motivated,” said Tampa lawyer Stephen Mitchell, a member of the coalition. “I’m not surprised by the nonpartisanship. The mayor is looking for people with expertise and interest, regardless of party.”

Iorio, who has urged the merger of Hillsborough’s and Pinellas’ bus services, HARTline and PSTA, also took a regional approach about rail when she proposed in September creating a public transportation system linking Tampa, St. Petersburg, Lakeland, Brooksville and Bradenton.

Iorio envisions a rail system that will feed bus systems for more localized service and a series of bus “circulators” that would be more local still.

She got an enthusiastic reception from state Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, who has been pushing legislation to create a regional authority to design and build multicounty transportation projects.

And there were cautiously warm receptions from St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker and State. Rep. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton.

But not everyone is clamoring for mass transit. The Hillsborough County Commission, for example, is less than enthusiastic. Its members have endorsed the widely derided notion of a beltway that would stretch from Manatee north and west through Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties.

And doubts have been expressed by the highly regarded staff of the Center for Urban Transportation Research at the University of South Florida, a transportation think tank. Many there think the region would be better off relying on buses because, they say, the Tampa Bay region has too many population centers for rail to succeed.

Iorio and Austin are confident they can turn around most naysayers.

“It can’t be a pie-in-the-sky proposal that we come out with,” Austin said. “If we approach this as a business, get a plan and move forward piece by piece with reasonable goals and workable financing, everybody will come along.”

Iorio said she is counting on a change in the public will.

“That’s already turning around,” she said. “During the County Commission race, you heard people asking the candidates all the time if they supported light rail, and most of the time you heard them say yes. If our plan is a good one, I can’t imagine the commissioners standing in the way of giving the voters a chance to decide.”
Iorio agrees that population centers are dispersed here, but she thinks that’s one of rail’s strengths.

“We have downtown, West Shore and the university area in Tampa, and Pinellas has multiple population centers,” she said. “You have to link them because people want to travel between them. Our roads don’t all go to just one place, and neither should our public transportation.”

[Last modified November 25, 2006, 20:45:03]

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