By Jim Bleyer
In outlining her vision for Hillsborough County’s mass transit future Friday, Pat Kemp found herself in the trenches alongside activists on the opposite side of the political spectrum.
The rookie county commissioner, a Democrat, shares many of the same views as self-styled conservatives who during the past six years torpedoed referendums that would have financed light rail systems with increased sales taxes in both Hillsborough and Pinellas counties.
“Light rail is not our future,” Kemp asserted, adding that the 21st century transportation revolution offers better, cheaper alternatives: vans, downsizing of buses with more flexible schedules, autonomous vehicles, and HyperLINK, the nation’s first transit operated ridesharing service introduced in Hillsborough County. She praised the experimental Tampa to St. Petersburg ferry that has operated for four months and said purchasing the CSX freight rail tracks would provide another mechanism for mufti-county travel.
Two days earlier, Kemp was the lone dissenter when the county commission allocated $812 million for transportation over the next ten years. All but $1 million was earmarked for road-related projects. Kemp said approximately $350 million in new revenue could be used to fund transit, obviating the need for a sales tax increase.
Citing a leadership void when it comes to enhancing mass transit, Kemp urged a grass-roots mobilization of concerned citizens to overcome that lack of political will. Her call to join the battle was met with enthusiastic applause from the issues-oriented Cafe con Tampa weekly gathering.
Apprised of Kemp’s remarks, Tea Party wheel horse Sharon Calvert agreed with several key points: rejecting light rail as a component of Tampa Bay’s transportation future, utilizing current tax revenue to fund mass transit improvements, embracing autonomous vehicles, and reining in the power of County Administrator Mike Merrill.
The ever-burgeoning coalition belies claims from light rail proponents who have screeched for years that right-wing fringe groups comprise the opposition, most recently to the aborted Go Hillsborough effort. It’s a political strategy that routinely fails. The most prominent proponents: Merrill, County Commissioner Ken Hagan, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, Kevin Thurman, a founding member of defunct Connect Tampa Bay, and the Tampa Bay Times who consistently bleeds its pro-tax increase editorial stance into its news stories.
The Times didn’t cover Kemp’s appearance. On Feb. 17, it sent a reporter with a laptop to Cafe con Tampa, ostensibly to cover the conservative position on mass transit and 15 days later, nothing has been published.
Last year nationally-known experts at a transportation symposium at St. Pete Beach agreed sales taxes should not be a funding source for mass transit projects. The Times did not publish a news story about the session. It did not fit the newspaper’s pro-tax, light rail narrative.