Tampa mayor urges passage of transportation tax
By Molly McGowan
A mobility forum last week at Wharton High began with the ironic announcement that Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio would show up late because she was stuck in traffic. When she did arrive, however, Iorio referenced her experience as a perfect example of the importance of establishing proposed transportation improvements for the region.
She reminded the public that an upcoming referendum that would help fund these plans — a 1 percent addition to the current sales tax — will be on the ballot Nov. 2, and to consider the fact that the Tampa Bay area is playing catch-up to other metropolitan regions. Though the vote only involves Hillsborough County, Iorio said that Pasco and Pinellas counties will be looking to Hillsborough to see how the plans play out, and may eventually have the chance to vote on similar referendums.
Iorio cited Charlotte, N.C.; Phoenix, Ariz.; and Atlanta, Ga. as similar regions that had successfully used sales tax referenda to improve and create bus and light rail systems, and said that following suit is important for Tampa and surrounding areas.
“This is the issue of the 21st century for our community,” Iorio said. She said Tampa is a sprawling, successful metropolitan area, “but the one thing we don’t have is an investment in a modern transportation system.”
The overall 2035 Regional Long Range Transportation Plan, as it is collectively referred to, would not only establish light rail connecting the University of South Florida (USF), downtown Tampa, New Tampa. the Westshore area and Brandon, but would also work with the Aviation Authority to provide rails that led directly into the Tampa International Airport for the ease of airport personnel and passengers.
Existing bus systems would also be improved. Instead of buses that ran once every hour, the system would be expanded to buses arriving at stops every 10-15 minutes, with express bus systems running in managed lanes solely for the express buses, as well as in mixed traffic.
For an hour before the meeting, which was Sept. 22, information displays were set up by the planning partners, where the public could assess visuals of the future plans and ask questions of the representatives. The planning partners consisted of the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority (TBARTA), the Federal Department of Transportation (FDOT), the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority (HART) and Hillsborough and Pasco counties Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs).
The TBARTA projects most likely to affect the Pasco area are plans for a short distance light rail from USF to Wesley Chapel and an express bus service in mixed traffic and managed lanes along the SR 54/SR 56 corridor from New Port Richey to Wesley Chapel. The FDOT’s plan for widening I-275 from four lanes to six, from north of Livingston Avenue to CR 54, easing congestion in the Pasco area, would begin construction in the spring of 2011. In addition to the interstate’s widening, the apex where I-275 and I-75 intersect is already under construction to help eliminate weaving caused by struggles to merge lanes. In regards to these specific improvements, Interstate Program Manager Adam Perez said, “It’s definitely going to ease congestion — that’s for sure.”
Pasco County Commissioner Pat Mulieri commented that the current widening of SR 54 would favorably impact the Pasco area. Mulieri explained that the idea behind the Pasco MPO plans is “connecting density and growth with multi-modal transportation,” creating an urban service area.
“We had a few hiccups along the way,” Mulieri said, but the additions to SR 54 are successfully underway.
At the end of the meeting, the floor was open to the public so they could ask questions of the representatives assembled. Several people stepped up to the microphone to speak, representing mostly the Tampa and Hillsborough areas, and making statements about the projected transportation plans, rather than asking questions.
Regardless of the fact that not one person actually asked a question, both sides of the issue were represented, with some in full support of the plans and others extremely wary of the 1 percent tax increase and the fact that the improvements would take so long to complete. The final determination of whether the tax increase and transportation plans will pass depends on citizens of Hillsborough County, who will cast their votes on Nov. 2, either for or against the referendum.
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