Public opinion getting on board for rail transit

commuter railJust two years ago, Hillsborough County voters convincingly rejected a proposed sales
tax hike to pay for a major investment in transit, including light rail for commuters. But
after 18 months of of public opinion research and the Metropolitan Planning
Organization’s recent endorsement of exploration of funding lower-cost
transportation improvements – a mix of transportation projects to include improved
intersections, more bus service, safer sidewalks, crosswalks, and trails, as well as pilot
rail and rapid bus projects as part of its next long range plan – there’s been a great deal
of media and public interest.

Now, a new poll sponsored by the Tampa Bay Times, Bay News 9, and AM 820 News
Tampa Bay suggests growing support for using public money for light rail mass
transit. In Hillsborough County, Braun Research – a national firm based in Princeton, NJ
– found 56% of those surveyed said “yes,” 35% said “no,” and 9% were unsure or
declined to answer when asked if they “would be supportive of spending public or tax
money to bring light rail mass transit to parts of the Tampa Bay area.” With 60% in
support in Pinellas County, officials are considering whether to place a referendum on
public spending for mass transit on the 2014 ballot. “It creates job opportunities and
helps get people to jobs,” said Tampa resident Nadine Ellen Keris, 26. “It makes a city
more accessible to tourists.” Having grown up in Boston and attended college in
Atlanta, she’s seen the advantages of living in a city with rail firsthand, in two separate
settings.

The MPO and Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn support a proposal to allow Florida’s largest
cities to opt out of state rules requiring sales tax referendums be held countywide. The
2010 referendum won support in much of the city, particularly in neighborhoods near
proposed rail lines. The more recent poll results do not seem out of whack to Ray
Chiaramonte, AICP, Executive Director of the Hillsborough County Metropolitan
Planning Organization and Planning Commission, who said, “Most communities that do
this, it takes them two or three times to win public support.”

A group calling itself Connect Tampa Bay formed earlier this month to promote more
options for transportation across the region, including rail. Kevin Thurman, a political
consultant who is the group’s executive director, said he believes this poll, combined
with the survey results from the MPO, are showing a changing tide. “I think that we
definitely have a significant shift in opinion in the area and people are ready to have
this discussion again,” Thurman said.

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