Regional transit system outlined

A half-cent sales tax is floated as a way to pay for a multifaceted network of lines.

Published July 14, 2007

Commuter trains crossing the Howard Frankland Bridge. Ferries on Tampa Bay. An interconnected network of rail lines and express buses.

Sometime around 2010, maybe, you'll be asked if you want to pay for all this.

Elected officials from all over the Tampa Bay area met Friday to strategize about how to build a more elaborate mass transit system that local people would actually use.

They've sketched out an ambitious wish list for rail, buses and ferries crisscrossing the region, with a St. Petersburg-to-Tampa train across the Howard Frankland as a crucial first step. See map on Page 4B.

Where would the money come from? For starters, some Pinellas and Hillsborough officials are floating the idea of a new half-cent sales tax. But they probably won't ask voters to approve it until three years from now, once they have a more detailed plan.

"I know 2010 sounds like a long time away, but it's not," said Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio. "You have got to be able to answer the voters' specific questions. They're going to want to know, 'How does this affect me and my neighborhood?' "

A sales tax referendum would go to voters in both counties at the same time. And if county commissioners won't put the question on the ballot, a citizens' petition with tens of thousands of signatures could do it.

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Plans for light rail in the Tampa Bay area have repeatedly died for lack of money and support. But some argue that it's time for better mass transit to deal with continuing growth and worsening traffic.

"I know we have to find some way to pay for it. But it's not going to get any cheaper or easier," said Ronnie Duncan, chairman of the Pinellas County Commission. "People are seeing more and more of their personal time eaten into by traffic."

Duncan heads an informal "regional transit workgroup" of elected officials and transportation planners. They've been stitching the different counties' plans together.

Some highlights of their plan:

Train, boat and bus fares would cover only a fraction of the costs. Local transit officials think the most realistic way to start paying for these things is to follow the lead of numerous other cities, including Miami and Jacksonville: Ask voters for a half-cent sales tax.

That would collect nearly $200-million a year in Pinellas and Hillsborough, a pot of local money that would be required in order to tap into additional state and federal transit funds.

Getting that half-penny will require a serious sales campaign to win over a public that's currently in a major antitax mood. Broward County voters recently rejected a similar proposal.

This aspect of the plan is also certain to face political opposition.

Hillsborough Commissioner Ken Hagan suggested that, if local county commissions won't put a referendum on the ballot, perhaps an independent organization such as the Tampa Bay Partnership business group could sponsor a petition drive to do it.

Several officials in Duncan's workgroup will be part of a seven-county Tampa Bay transportation authority that was recently created by state lawmakers. It will begin meeting next month.

Mike Brassfield can be reached at brassfield@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3435.