TAMPA — If there was one idea that most of the 100-plus people at Tuesday night’s public transportation forum could agree on, it was that Hillsborough County has transportation problems.
After that, the crowd largely diverged into two camps _ those who want the county to spend money on mass transit systems, and those who don’t. Guided by questions from a professional facilitator, nearly everyone in the auditorium at the downtown County Center got to expound on their positions.
The meeting was the first public forum held in conjunction with meetings of a tranportation policy group consisting of county commissioners, mayors of the county’s three cities and the chairman of the HART bus system board. Facilitator Herb Marlowe said there could be 12 to 15 more of the public hearings, alternating with meetings of the policy board.
“We’re trying to very deliberately talk about the future of this community,” Marlowe said. “What you want it to become, what kind of infrastructure you’re going to need.”
Transit supporters, wearing blue stickers that said “Try Transit,” outnumbered the other side by at least 2-to-1. They said the lack of buses and trains are holding the region’s economy back, pushing young people out of the county and costing residents time and money.
“What I do care about is our young people are leaving this community because they can’t find a job and they refuse to spend three hours of their days in a car and miss their kids’ baseball games cause they don’t live where they work,” said Kimberly Overman, a financial advisor from Davis Islands.
Opponents of more public money for transit cited the high costs and burden on taxpayers and said improvements should be left to the private sector. Some said the link between efficient mass transit systems and high-growth economies is over-rated.
They especially disparaged a recent call by local business executives for a light rail system that proponents say would attract young, educated, urban-lifestyle-loving workers to the Tampa area.
Kevin Wright, who described himself as a community activist, reminded the audience of the 2010 referendum when county voters solidly rejected an extra penny sales tax for a wide range of transportation improvements, including the light rail business executives touted.
“These CEOs don’t live in our community; why should we be going to them for answers from them that negate the vote we took in this community,” said Wright, who lost a Republican primary in 2010 to the future Florida House Speaker, Will Weatherford.
Ken Roberts, a tea party activist from Apollo Beach, said it’s not fair to stick taxpayers with a huge financial burden for mass transit that most county residents won’t ride.
“We have to tailor our solutions to the problems we have and not do everything,” Roberts said.
Transit supporter Laura Lawson countered that the county is a national leader in pedestrian deaths. Widening more county highways won’t alter that dubious designation, she said.
“It’s like we got a bad haircut and we still keep going to the same bad barber,” Lawson said.
Bolstering the argument that mass transit attracts educated younger residents, 22-year-old Jennifer Winter said she chose to go to the University of Florida instead of the University of South Florida in Tampa because Gainesville has a good bus system that she rode to class. She chose to come home to take graduate courses at USF in St. Petersburg.
“It was a shock to come again and not really have anyway to get around,” Winter said.
Many of the transit proponents expressed impatience with the county’s proposed time schedule for funding transportation improvements. Marlowe said the transportation policy group wouldn’t start looking at ways to fund the improvements until next June. That would be too late to put any kind of tax proposal on the November 2014 ballot.
“This seems to me just a lot of people talking about what their perspective is,” said Brandon resident Elizabeth Belcher. “What we need to do is have a plan on what we’re going to do and how we’re going to address it and we need to start having that right now, not waste more time doing this.”
Marlow gave no date for the next hearing except that it would probably be next month. He said future meetings may have different formats and be held in other parts of the county.