Forum aims to educate students on light rail project

With time running out on a referendum that could drastically change public transportation in Tampa, city officials and USF Student Government (SG) continued its drive to garner student support.

A panel discussion held Tuesday night in the Marshall Student Center Oval Theater brought four experts in Tampa mass transit to provide students with a better understanding and gain support of a high-speed light rail system, which would include a stop at USF.

The event comes after 51 percent of USF students who participated in the SG student body elections voted in favor of increasing taxes to support the rail – an action that could be echoed on a statewide scale in November, when it reaches the ballot in state elections.

On May 13, the Board of County Commissioners will vote on a referendum that proposes a 1-cent tax increase on the election ballot, said David Singer, campaign coordinator of the county-wide transportation support group, Moving Hillsborough Forward. But more support is needed for this to be approved, he said.

“That is day one, and we want you there with us,” Singer said to an audience of about 20 students. “If you are looking for new jobs, then this campaign is for you … If you are for greater access to work and school, this campaign is for you … If you want to be a part of something that can fundamentally change this community, this campaign is for you.”

This increase is projected to cost individual taxpayers $140 annually, said David Armijo, CEO of the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority (HART). If voters pass the tax, HART will receive $1.8 million within its first year and $2 billion within 30 years.

But if it does not pass, HART will not receive funding for the light rail project and will have to explore alternative measures – such as exercising its state-given right to increase property taxes – putting the project in limbo.

“We go to Plan B,” Armijo said. “We have the ability to raise revenue of property taxes … which will not be politically feasible or supportable (by the public).”

To draw attention to public transit, SG held a contest that asked students to express how they feel the light rail will impact them – as a student in general, as a Tampa citizen or in any other way, said Brittney Elliot, SG press secretary.

The first-place winner, announced at the end of the discussion panel, was the “Conductors of Change,” a group of eight public relations majors who created a website to promote the new project.

“We realize it is important,” said group member Ryan Hines, a senior majoring in public relations. “Like all the congestion in Tampa Bay, it’s an important region to compare, and mass transit will set it apart.”

Hines – along with Patricia Erickson, Danielle Sanchez, Divya Sukumar, Miranda Lou, David Abbruzese, Julianna Nova and Amanda Hamman – will receive $500 divided evenly to spend at the USF bookstore.