Mike Suarez wants to be perfectly clear: Despite what was reported in Thursday's Tampa Bay Times
, he believes a transit tax on the 2016 ballot in Hillsborough County can be successful.
"I think we can do a referendum in 2016, I don’t see any reason why we can’t do it," the HART board chair told a group of reporters at CL's Ybor City offices on Friday afternoon. "I wish we would come up with a plan and get going on this."
But Thursday's Times
quoted him as saying, "If they're looking at 2016, I think the boat has sailed on that," adding that "There's no way we're going to put out a referendum and get the kind of synergy that Greenlight [Pinellas] has."
Suarez said the conversation with the Times
editorial board centered around Greenlight and why its supporters in Pinellas have been more successful in rallying the public and business community around a transit plan than was the case in Hillsborough in 2010. "I made a comment that 'We can't do what they did in Greenlight Pinellas. We don't have the time, that ship has sailed, and if you wanted to do the same model, you'd probably have to wait until 2018.' Now did I say that exactly as I said now? No. Did I say definitely that we have to delay the vote? No."
Needless to say, the comment reverberated around the pro-transit/light-rail crowd in Hillsborough County. Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn told CL on Thursday, "I’m firmly committed to getting this done by 2016. I think two and a half years is plenty of time to develop the grassroots consensus just like Greenlight has done. I don’t know why Mike thinks that we can’t get it done. I’m intent on getting it on the ballot in 2016 and running an aggressive campaign."
Suarez says the most important thing for County leaders to do to begin momentum for a referendum is to figure out where the money would come from and how it would be distributed. And that's also been raised as a concern by the pro-transit group Connect Tampa Bay, who don't believe County Administrator Mike Merrill's stated comments
that a plan would be divided between roads and transit on a 50-50 basis.
Connect Tampa Bay's Kevin Thurman disputes the above stated assertion, writing in the comments section below that "we believe that Merrill wants the split to be 50-50. What is true is that the existing projects reviewed by the elected officials amount to $20 for roads for every $1 in new transit.").
Suarez is also suspect about the proportion of roads to transit, based on data and comments from the Transportation for Economic Development group over the past year. Pointing out that the failed 2010 referendum had a 75-25 percentage breakdown of transit to roads, he said, "if we don't get anywhere near that we're not going to be able to build a robust system, and I mean something like Bus Rapid Transit will be very difficult to build with that kind of money." A light-rail system, he added, would also be out of the question if the proportion of funding devoted to transit weren't sufficient.
That group (which also is referred to as the Transportation Leadership Group) was scheduled to meet on Thursday for the first time since Merrill announced last month that it would be the agency to take over HART, but that meeting had to be canceled because of Suarez' s commitment with a Tampa City Council meeting. Its next meeting isn't scheduled now until August.
Joining Suarez in CL's offices was Katharine Eagan, HART's interim CEO, who is making it a priority to get more into the public eye to extol the virtues of HART's current services. She appeared earlier in the week at the Emerge Tampa Bay event
that featured PSTA board chairman Ken Welch and Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin Beckner, and says she needs to continue to do that.
Eagan replaced outgoing CEO Philip Hale earlier this year, with the board deciding not to pursue a full-time leader until after the dust clears this fall, with not only Pinellas but also Polk County voting on transit referendums. "Until we know what happens in November in both counties, plus until what the [Hillsborough] county decides where they're going, until the reality settles down a little bit you don't know what you're reacting to." Either way, she says, HART will continue to plug away.