David Singer grew up in Chicago, so he knows first hand what mass transit can do for cities and suburbs. He has seen other large metropolitan areas embrace commuter rail and expanded bus service, and believes the time is right for Tampa to do the same.
Never mind the fact that we're still in a recession, or that a referendum is on the Nov. 2 ballot to add an extra penny to Hillsborough County's 7% sales tax to pay for mass transit. The way he sees it, the best time for a community to act is when it's down — and Tampa's only remaining peer without meaningful mass transit is Detroit.
Singer, an attorney with Holland & Knight's Tampa office who specializes in land use and zoning, serves as campaign manager for Moving Hillsborough Forward, the group backing the tax increase for bus and road improvements along with the addition of light rail. He has plenty of backing from the Tampa Bay business community and is quick to answer those who would call the proposal wasteful spending or damaging to democracy.
“Facts and education are our best advocacy. We don't need to spin them,” Singer says inside a temporary office at the Tampa Bay Park complex. He points out that if a sales tax isn't enacted, property taxes would need to increase to fund road improvements at least.
Here is an edited version of his comments in an interview with the Business Review.
How much support is the local campaign getting from other cities?
Several local groups have visited Charlotte, toured the system there and spoken to the business community to get a visual understanding of the impact of this system. The Tampa Chamber of Commerce is taking a group to Phoenix to do the same thing. You can learn a lot through testimonials, but to actually go and see these systems and the transformation of these communities, especially if you've been there before, offers a totally different picture.
We have supporters in Hillsborough County who have lived in these cities and can tell the story very well. One of them is Chuck Sykes, who came here from Charlotte and is on our executive committee. He's a conservative Republican and he understands the power of light rail in a mass transit system.
Is there bipartisan support for the added tax?
There really is, and this is a different kind of campaign than we normally see. There are very few times when the Sierra Club and the homebuilders agree on something, and the labor unions and chambers of commerce stand next to each other.
Once the rail stops are decided, what will be the impact on surrounding properties and how long will it take?
We will create an urban core within a half-mile radius of the light-rail stations. Within that radius you will see higher density and mixed-use development, and the potential for people to live, work, shop and go to restaurants and small businesses of their choice.
If you look at Phoenix as an example, it opened its light-rail system at the end of 2008 but $5.9 billion of private investment came over the last decade. As soon as we enact this referendum and the routes are finalized, the development begins so the impact is immediate.
Tampa's trolley system is the only rail experience people have here now. How do you get them to look beyond that?
We're talking about 46 miles of light rail throughout this county, we're talking about several hundred miles of expanded bus service in four different types. The trolley system is apples to oranges.
What we're talking about is not only the ability to move people from point A to point B and give them mobility offices, but also the unmatched ability to attract private investment and create jobs. There is no greater job generator than this transit system that we have the potential to enact.
How much discussion took place before deciding to go with a sales tax hike?
There was a tremendous amount of discussion. This process started over a decade ago and was a question of whether the sales tax is the best vehicle or is there a better, smarter way to do it. Several iterations of committees ultimately determined this was the best avenue for the county to explore.
We've looked at other communities to see what their successes and failures have been, and we have taken the best from those communities while omitting the same mistakes. That's one advantage to being last. We can do it right.