Getting light rail out of the station

Published Friday, October 30, 2009

It is decision time for light rail. After decades of talk and years of planning, Hillsborough County commissioners will discuss Wednesday whether to place a 1 cent sales tax on the November 2010 ballot for rail, road and bus improvements.

The move would be a game-changer for the region in the same way that the airport, professional sports and the performing arts center were in earlier generations. There is plenty of time to debate whether the area is ready and whether taxpayers can afford it. The most important issue now is to pose ballot language that clearly spells out the benefits and the costs.

Full penny

One thing is clear after two years of work by county and regional planners: Hillsborough cannot build a modern, multimodal transportation system without levying the full 1 percent sales surtax available to charter counties in Florida. Increasing the gas tax a penny in Hillsborough would generate $5 million a year; increasing the sales tax a penny would generate $192 million. Over a 30 year period, the sales tax would raise about $7 billion. Even that alone would not cover the construction of rail and roads, much less pay for maintenance and operating costs. But a full penny is the only amount that would give the county enough to get rail going and make a dent in the $4 billion in road needs already on the books. Supporters need to be honest with voters about what it will take to do the job. Starving the system or trying to build it on the cheap would inevitably lead to limited service that would undermine support for rail and continuing the tax.

Rail and roads

The referendum must be clear that this is a tax for several types of transit, not just rail. On that score, advocates are right to propose spending 25 percent of the proceeds, the maximum allowed by state law, on roads, intersection improvements, paths, bike trails and sidewalks. The purpose of this multimodal plan is to give commuters better options, including easier access by car or the option of rail. Peeling off a quarter for roads is partly a political accommodation. Residents who still would use their cars need to see some benefit for the taxes they would pay. But the split is more pragmatic than political. The money would pay for dozens of roads and bridges in underserved areas of the county. Road work builds Hillsborough's industrial and agricultural base. And as a practical matter, roads and mass transportation do not necessarily work against each other. Buses travel on roads, too.

No sunset

The third issue is whether to sunset the tax after a start-up period of 25 or 30 years. There is fairness in giving the authority to continue the tax to the people paying the bills down the road. But voters have other means to control spending and to ensure that officials are accountable for the tax and the transit system. The county could always reduce or eliminate the levy. It could also use the surtax money to pay for projects now funded by gas taxes and other revenue.

But a sunset would accomplish little beyond being a political sop. It would tell Washington that the county is not fully committed to mass transit, which could torpedo federal matching money for rail. A sunset would send the same worrying sign to the bond markets, making it harder and more expensive to borrow the money needed up-front to build the rail lines. Then there is the psychological aspect. How can the county make the case that it needs to rethink its entire approach to mobility — but only for the next 30 years?

Hillsborough's Transportation Task Force deserves credit for embracing these themes, and the report it will give commissioners Wednesday forms a good basis for the ballot language. The terms of any tax need to be ambitious enough to actually work. Voters deserve to hear more than the vision; they need to know what they are buying and have the confidence that this county government can get them there.

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