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Monday, Jul 28, 2014
Joe Henderson

Henderson: Before we tax for light rail, answer some questions first

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Published:   |   Updated: March 27, 2014 at 06:30 AM

I'll begin today with a public service. To save my friends from the tea party the bother of emailing all their objections about any tax plan to build a light rail system and improve bus service, I'll state some of their points for them.

They'll say any plan involving trains is another big-government overreach doomed to fail. They'll say we are already taxed enough. They'll say there is no proof riders will support it. They'll say our mass-transit problems can be solved with more buses and maybe dedicated express lanes. Until leaders can prove otherwise, I'm not prepared to say the tea party is completely wrong. That's not the same as saying its members are right.

So I like that Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn put the proposition front and center in his State of the City speech Tuesday. He wants a referendum no later than 2016 where citizens presumably will be asked to increase taxes to pay for transit upgrades the county needs — unless, of course, you enjoy gridlock.

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Of course, you know what they say about repeating the same action and expecting a different result. Voters in 2010 crushed a transit proposal for a 1 cent sales tax hike by 16 points.

“It can pass, but we have to learn from our mistakes,” Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe said. “I've talked with people from all parts of the county, and what I hear is that in any proposal there has to be a sunset. You have to be specific about what you're asking for. And you have to show how it benefits everyone.”

Projections are for about 200,000 new residents in eastern and southern Hillsborough County by 2020. That means more businesses, more houses and more cars stuck in longer lines on over-stressed roads.

“I'm looking at everything,” Sharpe said. “We have to be like startup companies and understand our customers better.”

Tea party supporters say a lot of those problems can be alleviated with better bus service. That would certainly help. Buses with amenities like Wi-Fi and, who knows, maybe individual latte machines can be part of the solution.

Let us not forget the basic premise of mass transit, though. It should move large numbers of people quickly from where they live to where they need to be.

Rail has to be part of that in a region growing as quickly as this one, but before politicians pass the hat to taxpayers there are many questions that need to be answered first. We'd need to know what role private industry can play in this. How would the bills get paid if revenue doesn't meet projections?

Tea party members aren't wrong when they say we're taxed enough, or that government programs of the size this one would be can quickly disintegrate into a boondoggle. A little pressure on leaders to think outside the, “Hey, let's have a referendum” box would be a good thing.

It also would be helpful to remember that all the solutions proposed by critics of rail come with a cost. New roads cost lots of money. Buses cost money. Time lost sitting in traffic costs money. Gas for your car costs money.

A tax increase to fund light rail would cost money, too. Eventually, everyone has to pay for something.

So make your best case why anyone should support a referendum, Mr. Mayor. Invite everyone to be heard. Light rail is something worth thinking seriously about.

The good news is you'll probably be stuck in lots of traffic between now and any referendum, so you'll have plenty of time.

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