The quest for a better transit system in Hillsborough County, seemingly dead after a failed sales tax referendum in 2010, was revived Wednesday by the county commission.
Commissioners voted 7-0 to create a policy group on transportation that will include mayors of the county's three cities in addition to commissioners and other agency heads. The group will hold its first meeting within six weeks, County Administrator Mike Merrill said, to agree on broad outlines on how to proceed. Later, county residents will get a chance to weigh in during meetings or via social media.
Commissioner Mark Sharpe, who has been pushing to renew the transit debate, said he thinks the effort will be successful because the plan will be developed and shaped with input from citizens. Critics of the 2010 referendum and supporters alike say voters turned down the 1-cent sales tax increase for transit because the plan was muddled and developed from the top down.
Sharpe said the policy group can get moving quickly because of extensive research done by a transportation task force several years ago.
"I'm eager to move forward," Sharpe said. "I come in with no preconceived conditions that I'm looking for other than to recognize what is obvious: We have a serious problem."
Providing support for the commission's action was a crowd of 30 to 40 pro-transit activists, who outnumbered conservative, anti-rail speakers by 10 to 1. The pro-transit group applauded after the unanimous vote.
Kevin Thurman, executive director of the non-profit Connect Tampa Bay, said everything the pro-transit group hoped for out of the meeting materialized.
"Our coalition wanted to have an open conversation, no preconceived plans, and time lines. They're all there."
Many of the pro-transit group were in their 30s or younger. They told commissioners young, educated professionals have a host of choices when they decide where to live. One of the deciding points, they argued, is a well-oiled transit system that gives residents choices on how they get around.
"The younger generation, they take into consideration life quality and having lots of choices," said Arnold Buckley, a county native who moved back to Hillsborough because his family lives here. He said his wife even moved back to Chicago for a time because she was disgusted with the lack of transportation choices.
Susan Long said it took her husband an hour and a half to get to his job at University of Tampa when they lived in Carrollwood. They have since moved to Seminole Heights in central Tampa, but it still takes her 45 minutes to get downtown during rush hour.
"The biggest issue we have is we can't move people," Long said. "We can't build enough roads to move the people here. We can't get enough buses going far enough and frequently enough to move the people."
Several tea party activists who spoke during the meeting said they agreed the county's transportation system is deficient but said voters proved in the 2010 referendum that most residents don't want to raise taxes to fund a costly light-rail system. They said the county should concentrate money and time on fixing failed roads.
"We don't believe light rail is the answer to any of our issues," said Mark Calvert. "We have to prioritize on preserving and sustaining our existing infrastructure. We should improve and extend HART bus services ... rather than more building and digging."
Pro-transit forces say light rail should be part of the solution, along with more-frequent bus service and road improvements. Such a comprehensive solution would cost billions of dollars — money county leaders say is not available.
The debate will involve some kind of tax, something commissioners are hesitant to discuss. But Sharpe is optimistic.
"Why I'm confident," Sharpe said after the meeting, "is if you attack this in an incremental way and realize we have a serious problem with transportation in our county, you'll be able to deal with the problem and come forward with a solution everyone in our community will be able to accept."