Regional rail can start locally
September 13, 2009
The Hillsborough County Commission will soon decide whether to ask voters to increase the local sales tax to help pay for transportation improvements, including the first leg of what could grow into a multi-county rail system.
Bringing the issue to a one-county vote raises the objection that it would be smarter for the entire region to work together from the very beginning. Hillsborough County Commissioner Jim Norman, for one, says a train limited to one county would be a bad investment.
There is wisdom in a regional approach, but the way commissioners Ken Hagan and Mark Sharpe have steered the process has other advantages. Their plan has Hillsborough totally in control and deciding how local revenue will be divided among local needs. What's needed here won't be confused with different needs in places like Crystal River and Venice.
It might be possible to arrange a multi-county tax vote, but it isn't likely to happen soon.
A framework for political cooperation does exist in the Tampa Bay Regional Transportation Authority, created two years ago to oversee transportation planning in Hillsborough, Pinellas, Pasco, Manatee, Sarasota, Hernando and Citrus counties. The roadblock is the lack of a mechanism for financial cooperation.
The Florida Legislature intentionally did not give TBARTA taxing power or even a permanent source of operating money.
To give it a tax raises a number of divisive political issues so far unresolved. Could voters in the urban counties force a tax increase for the smaller more rural counties? Would the objections of voters in a small county stall the entire project?
Would a regional tax increase be on all sales, on property or on gasoline?
Hillsborough County is right to press ahead alone. Its plans dovetail with regional plans approved this year by TBARTA, so when other counties are ready, they can tax themselves and join.
Meanwhile, the Legislature should consider how TBARTA can raise money, both for its own staff and for projects like rail that require a tax subsidy.
Many approaches work.
Atlanta's train is subsidized by a 1 percent sales tax levied in both Fulton and DeKalb counties. The transit agency is run by directors appointed by the city of Atlanta and the two counties, with additional representatives from neighboring counties and the state.
Charlotte has a single-county system, similar to the one proposed in Hillsborough, and it works well. Mecklenburg County voters approved a one-half cent sales tax for transit improvements, which now include a single-county rail line.
In St. Louis, a federal law dating back to 1949 enables cooperation across state lines. Taxpayers in the urban area in both Missouri and Illinois pay a sales tax to support the same train. It is run by a 10-member board, five from each state. In Missouri, the governor makes the appointments, and in Illinois, the chairmen of two county boards name the representatives.
In the Denver area, members of a transit board are elected from districts in all or part of eight counties.
Before TBARTA gets taxing power, it is worth considering whether its appointed members should instead be elected, as in Denver. Lawmakers also need to consider the proper role for the state Department of Transportation and local county commissions.
These issues could easily take more than one legislative session to settle.
Meanwhile, Hillsborough is right to take the lead. The local bus agency, HART, can accept federal and state money and oversee the project.
Once other counties see that rail transit works, they'll want to join. At that point, HART may need to relinquish control.
But until the Legislature knows where the Tampa area wants to go, it can't get it there.
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