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For light rail plan, look to Denver
Sell the specifics, its transit director says.
By MIKE BRASSFIELD, Times Staff Writer
Published November 16, 2007
TAMPA - Local leaders who want to bring light rail to the Tampa Bay area are looking at Denver as a model, so the head of Denver's rail system dropped in to give them some words of wisdom Thursday.
"This is not an undertaking for the faint of heart," he warned.
Some Tampa and St. Petersburg-area officials hope to eventually persuade voters to approve a local sales tax for rail, the way Denver did a few years ago. And the latest plan for a passenger rail network through Hillsborough County is similar to Denver's.
Cal Marsella, director of Denver's Regional Transit District and a leading expert on light rail, gave local officials this advice: If they really want the public to pay for this, they'll need a plan that offers something to every corner of the region. They'll need a vision that captures the public's imagination, and that specifically maps out train routes and schedules. And they'll need a major media campaign, complete with TV ads financed by the business community.
"I think this region is ready, but it's got to coalesce around a plan that everybody can buy into," Marsella told the Tampa City Council on Thursday.
In a two-day visit that concludes today, he's also meeting with Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio, business leaders, and officials with Hillsborough's transit agency and Tampa International Airport.
They want to hear why, in 2004, the residents of eight counties around Denver voted 58 percent to 42 percent in favor of raising their sales tax by four-tenths of a cent. That's funding a 12-year, $6-billion effort to lay down 119 miles of passenger train lines, to improve bus service, and to add 21,000 parking spaces at rail stations' park-and-ride lots.
"At the end of the day, what won the election was the map" that showed routes and times for the proposed trains, Marsella said. "People want to know what they're going to get, when they're going to get it, what it's going to cost."
Local officials are debating how soon to put the question to voters, who are currently in a serious antitax mood.
There's action on several fronts:
-Iorio has called for a Hillsborough sales tax referendum in 2010, once a regional mass transit plan is ready. Some Pinellas officials have expressed interest in holding a vote at the same time.
-Elected officials on a new seven-county Tampa Bay transportation authority are beginning plans for a broad network of passenger trains and express buses that would radiate out from the Pinellas-Hillsborough core.
-They're working with state Department of Transportation planners who recently started a two-year study of regional mass transit options.
-Officials with Hillsborough Area Regional Transit are talking about trying to get a referendum on the ballot much sooner, in November 2008. HART runs the county's buses and would operate its rail network. Their argument is that Hillsborough is further along in its plans than other local counties, so it could be an example for the region.
But county commissioners would have to approve putting a sales tax referendum on the ballot - something they have declined to do in the past. Failing that, it would require a citizens' petition with tens of thousands of signatures.