Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Is Tampa's light rail train stalled?

Metropolitan Highway SystemImage via Wikipedia

By Mitch Perry
Mark Sharpe's arms are flailing dramatically. Given just 15 minutes to speed through what is usually a 25-minute Power Point presentation on why he thinks Hillsborough County needs to approve a one-cent sales tax referendum this fall, the county commissioner looks at a blown-up photo of a massive traffic jam behind him and proclaims, "That is part of our present, and if we don't do something, that will be part of the future." The screen then shifts to a closeup of a Wall Street Journal article titled, "Is Florida over?," which allows the former U.S. Navy officer to riff on his fears of the Bay area becoming less economically competitive if our transportation needs aren't addressed.

Staring at the 200 or so people at the Hillsborough County Republican Executive Committee, many of whom are staring back with blank visages, he pauses and admits, "I know this is not popular." Sharpe then furiously wraps up his address with a tribute to infrastructure, bellowing, "Americans BUILD! We BUILD -- Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Eisenhower -- we BUILD!"

His speech ends. In some quarters of the Tampa Bay area, such a performance would inspire cheering, but not at this event. Following Sharpe on stage is Orlando-area conservative talk show host Doug Goetzloe, a fierce anti-tax zealot who offers such banalities as "Light rail is an expensive plaything. It doesn't work," ignoring how it seems to work pretty efficiently in many of our major American cities. Later he'll call it Hillsborough's version of Boston's infamous Big Dig project.

Shortly thereafter, State Committeeman A.J. Matthews reads the vote tally of Hillsborough Republicans: For Goetzloe, 115 votes, for Shape, 32.

Of course, that's a better reception than the commissioner received at the Blaise Alfano Center in North Tampa a few weeks earlier. That's where he squared off against David Caton, the former anti-porn zealot who has become a leading figure protesting against the referendum. The Tampa 9/12 group, a local tea party offshoot that was dead-set against supporting another government "boondoggle," hosted the event.

Sharpe is hardly the only public official supporting the transit referendum (Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio has also been out in front on the issue for years), but he has lately become the face and voice of the movement — for now, at least. He's become a one-man show going to every part of the County to sell the referendum, which supporters say is necessary for the region to grow competitively. And his social networking skills are by far the most accomplished of any elected official in Tampa Bay, what with his blog (marksharpefl.com) and Best of the Bay-winning Twitter updates.

Though organizers say there will be a whole community movement to educate and advocate for the penny sales tax once the ballot language is approved for the measure, momentum for the project seems to be stalled. The "pesky details" (as the Tampa Tribune referred to them in a recent editorial) -- including the composition of an oversight board and questions of how the money will be distributed between the county and the three cities inside it -- continue to stall the implementation of an actual ordinance that can be debated.

Last week, Hillsborough County Commissioners learned that the earliest they might be able to vote on approving ballot language would be sometime in April, delaying an education and marketing campaign that advocates say they will unleash once there's an actual measure to support.

"I think the strategy from the other side is to run the clock out," Sharpe told CL last week before the commission's meeting. "Throw everything that you can at it. My response is, that's good. As they throw a lot of dirt in the air, people are going to be able to see what that is. That's going to frustrate voters."

Tampa City Councilwoman Mary Mulhern is one concerned observer. Though the transit project has major implications for Tampa, for now the power resides east on Kennedy Boulevard with the Board of County Commissioners (BOCC). She admits to getting a little antsy about the deliberations, and says what needs to happen is a major advertising campaign. "They shouldn't be relying on political consultants," she says. "They need to hire a local ad agency, and they need to bring a consultant who's done this in the past. End of story."

The Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Agency, also known as HART, has for months been paying Alan Wulkan, a consultant with the group InfraConsult who's been involved in similar campaigns. Wulkan says there's plenty of time for a full-fledged campaign and isn't concerned that ballot language hasn't been completed yet. "These are not easy decisions for a commission or any policy board to get right when it comes to planning," he says. "Frankly, I think they're making good progress. It's only March. Many communities don't finalize this far in advance."

The Tampa Bay Partnership said last week that they have a team of political and communication experts advising them currently on the light-rail initiative, and confirmed for CL that one such organization is the Tampa-based Victory Group, led by famed GOP consultant Adam Goodman (who did not return our call for comment).

It has been expected that the heavy lifting to get the business community behind the transit measure would be shepherded by the Tampa Bay Partnership. But in a brief interview last week, the Partnership's Stuart Rogel deemphasized the role his group will play in marketing the proposal. "We will be a part of, but we won't be the lead organization," he said.

Mayor Iorio and Commissioner Sharpe certainly hope that the Partnership plays a key role. Business groups have been instrumental in building support throughout the country in getting similar rail/transit projects approved in recent years, and pushing a sales tax through the Hillsborough County electorate will be a formidable task -- and would be even if the state and the area weren't undergoing some of the highest unemployment numbers in over three decades. Several sources that refused to be identified said the reason the Partnership's involvement is so crucial is that Mayor Iorio has alienated business groups in the city.

Former Tampa area Congressman Jim Davis has also been consulting with Sharpe, the mayor and others closely linked to the proposed measure. He acknowledges that passing the measure will be tough because "you're asking people to spend money on something and have to convince them that it's worthwhile." Davis said he hopes to see a bipartisan and "hopefully a grassroots campaign" for the measure once the language is approved by the Board, and says he hopes that includes a website that would provide a clearinghouse for information.

There has been an intense back-and-forth in the last few weeks between Sharpe, Iorio, HART Executive Director David Armijo and city and county staff on issues like governance, oversight, bonding and, most importantly, the actual 75 words that will be put in front of Hillsborough voters this fall. Armijo admitted during a HART meeting last week that writing the ordinance was taking up more time than he thought it would.

But several local officials contacted by CL insisted that it was too early to panic, though they admit it would be better for all concerned if ballot language had been approved by now.

University of Tampa Professor Scott Paine says that his sense is that "the public is frustrated with our transportation system [and with our county's leadership]. Given the right initiative and the right argument for it, I think it can win even in our bad economy."

Former Tampa City Councilman and now television analyst Bob Buckhorn believes that with the exception "of the insiders," the rail debate isn't resonating one way or another right now. He discounts any organizing effort to stop it.

But maybe he shouldn't.

Hillsborough GOP powerbroker Sam Rashid says he'll be part of as many as a half-dozen groups in the county that are committed to defeating the measure. He says it's never easy fighting a ballot question, as "there's unlimited money on the opposing side." But he says that the anti government-spending mood of the country makes it easier for foes of light rail than a year or two ago.

David Caton of the Florida Family Association may not be well financed, but he does have his e-mail list of 35,000 supporters, as well as the free media to get his message of opposition out. Speaking briefly to CL last week at the County Center, Caton was particularly irked at the reluctance of officials working on the measure to commit to a hard 75/25 split of how the funds will be distributed (with 25 percent of the monies going to road projects and the other 75 percent to bus and rail). Last week, officials thought they would include that language in the Interlocal agreement but not put it on the ballot, but it's the Commissioners who will ultimately decide whether or not to include that.

"This is a concern I've had all along, that they're going to dupe the voters, they're going to prey on the ignorance of the voters to get them to approve something they wouldn't otherwise approve," Caton said. "I'm not seeing any positive moves here, I think it's very deceptive."

Critics of the transit plan, like Commissioner Jim Norman, have insisted that the 25 percent of the penny sales tax devoted to road projects is nothing more than a fig leaf designed to convince County residents who don't support light rail to believe that there's something in it for them.

At a BOCC workshop last month, he called out supporters to "man up," accusing them of trying to obscure the rail component of the measure. On that count he was dead on, and officials scrambled to say that they would put the word "rail" back in for the next iteration.

At a recent luncheon with members of the county commission, Tampa City Council, school board members and the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, Norman blasted the whole idea of putting aside 25 percent of the revenues from the tax to fund road projects. He said, "The reason you put the 25 percent in there is to try to get people in this county to vote for it. ... You hope to entice people in different sections of this community to vote for this referendum. It is not a road project referendum. It is a rail referendum. A lot of famous people once said you can put lipstick on a pig, but it's still a pig. This is a rail project, plain and simple."

And playing into Norman's paranoia is the somewhat embarrassing spectacle of what road projects would receive funding if the measure is approved.

Environmental activists had been angered that several of the roads that would be widened under the proposal were already supposed to be widened using funding from developers in the South County region, with six of those road-widenings directly backed by a single developer, Newland Communities.

But after Lucia Garsys, the county's planning and infrastructure services administrator, said last week that those proposals had been scrubbed because they were previously listed as developer-funded projects, commissioners Ken Hagan and Rose Ferlita said that they saw little incentive for anybody in that part of the electorate, with Hagan saying, "This area will never see any rail, and now that they're not seeing any road projects, I don't see any reason why any South County voter would support this."

Hagan and Ferlita are Republicans who have so far avoided party pressure to back away from supporting the proposal, which would simply allow people to vote on a tax increase to fund transit. But their concerns demonstrate that before the campaign for light rail even begins, it still has to get on the ballot first.

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