Several nonprofit groups are pressing Hillsborough County commissioners to move quickly on developing a transportation plan that will include better bus service and rail.
Connect Tampa Bay, Sierra Club and the Florida Consumer Action Network are among the organizations whose representatives say they will speak at the Wednesday county commission meeting during a planned discussion on transportation.
The groups say they have been holding informal discussions with county residents, trying to generate a groundswell of support for better transit.
"What we've done the last two years is educate people that if you speak up you can make a difference," said Phil Compton of the Sierra Club. "Everybody agrees transportation is a big problem. OK, it's a big problem; now let's do something about it."
Leaders of the groups say they do not have a specific plan in mind, but they want mass transit, including better and faster bus service and the beginnings of a light rail system to be part of the mix. What they say they will insist on is a concrete timeline for improvements and a way of paying for them.
"We want there to be some accountability, not some ethereal, amorphous date in the future," said Tim Heberlein, political director for Florida Consumer Action Network.
Commissioners have already conceded that the county's traffic gridlock and lack of transportation choices are hurting economic development. But the county doesn't have enough money to make the transportation investments experts say are needed.
That means any serious conversation about transportation will include the prospect of a tax, something commissioners are reluctant to discuss just two years after voters overwhelmingly rejected a proposed 1-cent sales tax increase for transit and road improvements.
Proponents, however, are encouraged by a post-referendum poll by the Metropolitan Planning Organization that showed traffic congestion was a major concern for most voters.
The poll also showed a majority of those surveyed would back a scaled-back tax increase — a half-cent — if there were clear, defined projects that would help the whole county.
But a half-cent might not generate enough money if a transportation package includes light rail, something business interests and the nonprofit coalition support. The light rail system proposed in the 2010 referendum had an estimated price tag of $800 million.
Kevin Thurman, executive director of Connect Tampa Bay, said light rail has spurred high-wage jobs in cities like Phoenix and Charlotte, N.C., where clusters of development have grown up around the rail stops.
Rail would also make the city more attractive to young professionals and high-tech workers who help drive economic development and who are increasingly drawn to cities with mass transit, as well as pedestrian- and bike-friendly streets, Thurman said.
"Unless we solve this problem now, we're going to be suffering in economic development," Thurman said.
Proponents of light rail are heartened by the experience of other cities where it took more than one referendum to pass a transit tax.
They cite the success of Charlotte's rail system, which was pushed by former Republican Mayor Pat McCrory, now North Carolina's governor.
McCrory has credited the light rail system and improvements in the city's bus service with much of Charlotte's economic success. In 2005, Money Magazine listed the city as one of the top three places to live in the country.
But a package that includes light rail is sure to ignite fierce opposition from the tea party, which led the campaign that helped defeat the 2010 referendum. Sharon Calvert, co-founder of the Tampa Tea Party, rejects the nexus between rail and economic development.
"The development around rail tends to be highly subsidized," Calvert said. "There is no actual evidence that development couldn't have occurred someplace else."
Calvert said that for all the talk about snarled traffic in the Tampa area, commute times here are about at the national average. And a light rail system would take few, if any, cars off the clogged roadways.