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Transit summit draws mayor, questions

USF students, faculty and members of the Tampa community attended the University Area Transportation Summit at the University Research Park on Wednesday to discuss a 1 percent transportation sales surtax referendum aimed at improving transportation in Hillsborough County.

The referendum will be on the ballot in November and will give voters the opportunity
to provide the state with the tax money it needs to fund various transportation improvements.

Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio said that the issue of improving transportation is the “most important issue” that Hillsborough and the surrounding region will face for many decades.

“We can’t afford to stick out like a sore thumb as the only major metropolitan area in the country that does not have a modern transit system,” she said.

Iorio said the referendum would not only bring improvements in transportation but also be an investment for the future.

“It’s going to be increasingly important in the 21st century for people – young and old – to have mobility options,” she said.

The referendum would provide commuters with options like improved bus services through Hillsborough Area Regional Transit (HART), light rail transportation and improvements to current roadways and bike and pedestrian pathways.

“The referendum will take the current HART system and create something
new,” Iorio said. “Something it’s currently not.”

To fund these “mobility options,” David Singer, campaign manager of Moving Hillsborough Forward, a county-wide coalition to support the tax, said the 1 percent sales surtax will be put into a trust fund where it will be further divided: 25 percent for roads and 75 percent toward transit.

“The tax will be paid by both local citizens and tourists alike,” he said. “We’ll all share the cost.”

Singer said there will also be a “citizen oversight” committee to ensure that the money that is allocated for transit serves that purpose.

“There will be 11 members on the committee, all of them citizens of the community and all of them with experience in transit, public finance and public accounting,” he said.

The new and improved bus services funded by the referendum will be an overall increase of “service on all existing bus routes.” Singer said it will add “bus rapid transit,” which is a “fast and frequent” bus service that will stop every half mile to every three-quarter mile.

He said it will also add “flex service,” which is a “neighborhood focused” bus service. This service allows commuters to call bus drivers and have the driver pick them up at their house, where they are then chauffeured to a business located within that neighborhood.

Singer said the light rail would also be funded by the referendum and would be completed in phases. It would provide service to downtown Tampa, USF, New Tampa, Westshore/Tampa International Airport, northwest Hillsborough County, Brandon and South Tampa.

Singer said the referendum will bring “tens of thousands of permanent construction jobs” to the region and will “attract billions of dollars in investment” money to the area as well.

“It’s getting increasingly expensive to own a car in our area – (the referendum) gives people options that they don’t have right now,” he said.

Ray Chiaramonte, executive director of Hillsborough County Metropolitan Planning Organization, said that the plans could take at least 20 years to complete.

“The buses would come first,” she said. “Then work on the roadways and then the planning of the light rail.”

Joanne Brown, a senior majoring in international studies and economics, said her major concern with plans for the new HART buses and routes would be security – a concern addressed by Iorio.

“The new buses would require a new network of security,” Iorio said. “This would mean adequate lighting, cameras and a network to support it all.”

Brown said she frequently uses the Bull Runner to get to both her job and off-campus housing and thinks that more students could benefit from mass transit.

However, not all those present at the summit were entirely pleased with the proposed fixes for the region’s transportation problems.

Deborah McCarthy, director of disability services at USF, said, “Tampa doesn’t have a history of responding well” to the needs of the disabled community.

“If you work with HART now, it’s difficult to believe that HART is going to reorganize itself so that it will be reliable (in the future),” she said.

This is only going to make it all the more difficult, McCarthy said, to get the young generation she works with to “pay an extra penny” for a system that may not be worth the change.