Finally a step forward in long debate on rail
April 14, 2009
Three things were remarkable about the Hillsborough County Commission's decision earlier this month to authorize staff to work with the city and other agencies on drafting a possible tax referendum on transit and road improvements.
First, the discussion was civil. Second, Republicans took the lead in explaining why voters should be given the choice. And third, the board vote was unanimous.
In years past, anyone bringing up the topic of passenger rail of any description could expect to be verbally dragged through the palmetto bushes. Times and circumstances have changed.
Republican Commissioners Mark Sharpe and Ken Hagan have worked long and hard to explore the region's transportation options and outline them to whoever will listen. They both understand that the right transportation investments are necessary to attract the best jobs.
They understand that cars and roads aren't free and that most other urban areas the size of Tampa have left us far behind in building rail and attracting federal transit dollars.
The April 1 vote authorizes county staff to work with Hagan's transportation task force, Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio, the Metropolitan Planning Organization, the bus agency known as HART, the Tampa Bay Regional Transportation Authority, the state Department of Transportation and the general public to find agreement on how best to ask in 2010 for a 1-cent increase in the sales tax.
County commissioners will decide later this year whether to actually put a tax referendum on the ballot, and if so, exactly how it will be worded.
Commissioner Jim Norman, long a rail skeptic, noted that economic times are hard and that he hasn't sensed a groundswell of support for paying higher taxes. Clearly, whatever is on the ballot won't pass without a public education campaign and the passionate support of more than a few political leaders.
But Norman was right to join the majority in keeping the process moving. Local voters deserve a chance to have their say on an issue that has been debated and studied for a generation. Our first editorial in support of a fixed guideway system for Tampa appeared 22 years ago.
"We can't keep building roads," Hagan correctly said. He also pointed out that some of his constituents are having a hard time paying for cars, maintenance and fuel.
"We've been talking about light rail and other forms of transportation for years and years and years and years, and every time we talked about it, it's too expensive, and it gets put off," he said. "I think that now is the time to actually start looking at this ... and just make a decision, one way or the other, and get it on the referendum and let people decide."
If voters say no, then the county can start working on a backup plan.
It's also an economic development issue. Sharpe tells us that "one of the most important things we can do to stimulate real growth - and create high-wage jobs - in the thriving health-care industry is to link our USF life science hub by rail, cab, car and bus. Then we need to link our region to other regions. This takes time and we cannot afford to wait."
It appears the long wait might indeed be over. Remarkable.
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