TAMPA - A group of business leaders told Hillsborough County elected officials Tuesday they need to start working now toward creating a workable mass transit system, even if it means raising taxes.
The six business executives were invited to discuss the county's growing transportation problems with a policy group consisting of county commissioners, the mayors of the county's three cities and local transportation agency heads.
The executives said if the county doesn't invest in mass transit, including a light-rail system, it will likely fall behind other major metropolitan areas economically and won't be able to attract talented young entrepreneurs who prefer the urban lifestyle.
"Our real shortcoming is that we don't have effective, efficient mass transit that people are willing to choose over getting in their cars," said Larry Richey, senior managing director of Cushman & Wakefield, a commercial real estate brokerage firm. "And I think that shortcoming leads to a lot of challenges we have as a community."
Garry Sasso, president and chief executive of the Carlton Fields law firm, said road improvements and an efficient bus service are important to business and help create and maintain jobs. But Sasso classified those transportation improvements as short-term solutions.
"You can have short-term reactions to business needs or you can have long-term planning that drives business growth," Sasso said. "For example, probably one of the most expensive kinds of transportation is rail, but it gives you very powerful business growth in the form of transit-oriented development."
The business leaders cited successful rail systems in other cities such as Atlanta, Charlotte, N.C., and Washington that were built in spite of opposition.
"If you invest in light rail like you've seen in other cities - Washington, D.C., is a classic example - they had a lot of opposition to the Metro Line, but they showed after time a lot of the stops on the Metro Line, you had businesses and the home values rose dramatically around them," said Gregory Celestan, CEO of Celestar and chairman of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce.
David Pizzo, market president of Florida Blue health insurance company, said Hillsborough will be competing with those urban areas for younger, tech-savvy workers that help drive an information-technology economy.
"The younger demographic we want to attract is used to having mass transit options which we don't have here," Pizzo said. "They want to live in a core where they can live, work and play."
The executives also advised the political leaders to forget an unsuccessful referendum in 2010 that would have raised the sales tax by a penny to finance road improvements, new bus lines and a light-rail system. Voters in Tampa, where the light-rail line was to be built, supported the tax increase, but outside the city the ballot initiative failed.
Sasso, who was chairman of the Tampa Bay Partnership when the partnership and other business groups actively supported the transit tax, said the ballot item failed because of bad timing and a flawed transportation plan.
County residents were being asked to increase taxes during the depths of the recession and at a time when distrust of government was at historic highs, Sasso said. Supporters had a few months to educate the public about a massive transportation plan that had not been sufficiently discussed.
"The people in the county didn't vote against the initiative so much as they didn't understand it," he said.
The plea for major transportation investments comes at a time when the county government has barely enough money to keep rutted roads paved. Commissioner Sandy Murman told the group the county has just $10 million available for roads.
That's why commissioners and the mayors have to convince their constituents that new taxes or fees will pay off in better, higher-paying jobs.
"Commissioner, don't be afraid of talking about fees or the dreaded T word," Celestan said, referring to taxes. "As long as there's a value proposition in place, people are not afraid of that."
Some commissioners were not convinced. Victor Crist, who represents the northern part of the county, said his constituents will not support a tax. Commissioner Al Higginbotham said last week he had detected no appetite among county residents for higher taxes to finance transportation projects.
Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and Commissioner Mark Sharpe, supporters of the referendum, urged the other politicians to ignore political opposition and find the money for better mass transit. Buckhorn said the county could start with a smaller, pilot light-rail line as Charlotte did.
"At the end of that pilot project," Buckhorn said, "the rest of the community was clamoring to be part of the rail system."