Moving beyond roads

Published Friday, March 27, 2009

For decades in Tampa Bay, the solution for moving people across bridges, up and down Pinellas County and across Hillsborough County has been the same: Spend billions of tax dollars to knock down homes and businesses, take property off the tax roll, lay concrete through neighborhoods and rural areas. When the stop-and-go is too much to bear, repeat. But anyone driving up and down Dale Mabry Highway or Interstate 275 into Tampa should have a clear picture by now that the region needs a broader approach than just building roads. It is too expensive, inefficient and damaging to the environment and does nothing to broaden the economy.

Why, then, are Hillsborough County commissioners already discounting the most promising effort in years to build a better transportation system? They seem surprised that two years after the Legislature created the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority to consolidate planning across seven counties, the agency is about to deliver its proposal.

Commission Chairman Ken Hagan is ticked that Hillsborough County is not in the lead. That is his fault. Hagan is the county's representative on TBARTA. He should be out raising public support for a new system of roads, light rail and express bus service. This multimodel approach is key to moving people, expanding the economy, sparing the budget and protecting the region's natural resources. And Commissioner Jim Norman said recently that even any talk about funding the plan was "scaring the life out of me." That is the sort of abdication on serious issues that voters have come to expect from Norman in his 17 years as a commissioner. But it also captures how far this commission needs to go.

TBARTA is about to start making the case for rail. Yet Hillsborough County is pushing ahead on widening roads in the suburbs. The commission has never taken the TBARTA effort seriously. Two years ago, even after TBARTA was formed in large part to expand mass transit, the county went ahead and dedicated $500-million on a roads plan using the local Community Investment sales tax. Hagan, who chaired the effort, argued that CIT funds would grow at a "conservative" rate of at least 6 percent a year. The recession changed that; CIT collections were down in the last quarter, ending in December, by 7.1 percent from last year; through February, they were down 9.4 percent.

The commission and its staff need to start thinking beyond roads and embrace a regional approach. Hagan, to his credit, joined TBARTA in unanimously supporting Hillsborough's plan to hold a referendum next year to finance rail. But he needs to get out front with Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio and Commissioner Mark Sharpe. They recognize the issue is not roads or rail but the end result: better mobility, jobs, stronger neighborhoods and a dynamic tax base. Hillsborough should lead in shaping this vision.

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