Better a penny now than big bucks later

Sue Carlton, Times columnist

Published Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Gas prices? Brutal.

Take the bus to work, you say? No way. Doesn't get where I need to go, doesn't come often enough, isn't convenient, practical or even pleasant.

My morning commute? The worst. I sit in stop-and-go traffic on (pick your displeasure: Bruce B. Downs, Dale Mabry, Lithia-Pinecrest, and more.)

What's that? You want me to pony up a penny more in sales tax for rail, buses and roads around here?

A new tax? Now?

You're kidding, right?

And there you have the challenge for Hillsborough County commissioners who hope taxpayers will agree to swallow the pill of a 1-cent increase to the current 7 percent sales tax in the name of transportation — even as we face lost jobs, foreclosed homes and one wobbly economic future. Pinellas and Pasco are watching as Hillsborough makes its push for a referendum on next year's ballot for that penny for transportation improvements, which include light rail.

So how do you convince voters to do the right thing by spending on the future when they're busy worrying about the present?

Commissioner Mark Sharpe, a Republican who considers himself a fiscal conservative, turns out to be the biggest cheerleader. "For a guy like me who came into this thing not eager to have on my political resume, 'He raised taxes,' I looked at this and realized it's not going to get any less expensive and the problem's not going to go away."

Sharpe likens our abysmal transportation situation to having a serious illness: You do something, or you do nothing, the latter pretty much guaranteeing things will get worse.

"This is not, 'Gee, a luxury item, can we afford it?' " he says. A football stadium — you know, like the one we funded through a half-cent sales tax years back — there's your luxury item.

Proponents say the new tax would cost roughly $141 per household per year, which sounds like a bill no one wants to pay until Sharpe throws out numbers like $800 — the amount he says it costs him yearly if gas goes up a buck. Then there's that whole looking-down-the-road thing again, making changes to improve where we live, to add economic impact and bring in jobs.

Notice we're talking "transportation," not just light rail, though the small-government, anti-tax opponents who already are starting a hard push-back like to focus on rail.

Rail, which will ultimately connect us regionally, vastly improve how we get around and make this a more attractive place to work and live, will also take years. And it's unfamiliar to some of us.

But here's what you might not read in those vote-no mailers: How that penny gets divvied up. Yes, a good chunk, 37 percent, according to Sharpe, goes to rail, with initial lines connecting downtown to West Shore and the University of South Florida. A good chunk also goes to a seriously beefed-up and revamped bus system that would serve the entire county. Twenty-five percent is specifically carved out for "non-transit" road projects.

At today's meeting, the commission that voted 5-2 to go forward last month continues the push for badly-needed money for transit. Soon they will take up the particulars, and the public will have its say before next November's election. This means you.

No question, a new tax is a sacrifice no one wants. But we work on transportation now, or we pay for it down the road.

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