Sue Carlton: Trying to support public transit



Hillsborough County
Commissioner Mark Sharpe, an unabashed believer in public transit, has an analogy for naysayers the ones who think paying for rail and other transportation improvements is heresy.

(Seriously, what's next, Mark? Using phones without cords? Get ahold of yourself, man!)

Sharpe's analogy, which really only works during meetings in tall buildings, goes like this:

"I just ask them: ‘How many walked the 15 flights of stairs, or did you use the people mover?' " (The people mover, of course, being the elevator.) "The people mover gets you up when it doesn't make sense to walk," he says.

So: When it comes to the future of transportation around these parts, we are poised to move forward. Or not.

In November, Pinellas voters will consider a referendum for a 1 percent sales tax that would replace a current property tax for transit.

This would pay for significantly enhanced bus service and a light rail line connecting the downtowns of St. Petersburg and Clearwater with stations in between.

In Hillsborough, transit supporters still smarting from their own failed referendum back in 2010, which Sharpe supported are watching closely and readying similar ideas.


And how do We The People feel about this?

A recent poll sponsored by the Tampa Bay Times, Bay News 9 and AM 820 News Tampa Bay shows Pinellas voters appear to be slightly more progressive on this issue, with 55 percent ready to back the referendum, 36 percent against, and 9 percent unsure. In Hillsborough, 51 percent would support raising the sales tax for such improvements, 44 percent were against it and 5 percent unsure.

Yes, approval is down a few points from last year. But we're clearly considering it.

So what's the key to convincing us?

I think We The People need to know we're not just being asked to pony up (again) for some boondoggle we do not believe will help our lives one whit. We need to be shown what's in it for us.

The answer is, obviously, a more efficient way to get around in a region that badly needs it.

This means not only rail routes that make sense, but an infinitely better bus service that goes where we need to go.

And also, no small point here, an easy and welcoming ride.

It has to be affordable, dependable, there when we need it weekends and at night, with plenty of sensible routes.

Sure, an amenity like a phone app to check when your bus is coming is a definite improvement. But we need a major culture change when it comes to us riding the bus.

As Sharpe puts it: "We run the bus system like we run public housing: You get what we give you." For this to work for the people expected to pay for it, it has to be consumer-driven.

There are other good things to come from a sales tax investment in mass transit including rail. It's a big component in making us a place where people want to work and live and where businesses want to land.

It means jobs. It means progress instead of standing still.

All of which will be up to voters. And as with that people-moving elevator, we've got nowhere to go but up.

Sue Carlton writes for the Tampa Bay Times.


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