Hillsborough County has been talking about building a modern transportation system for 25 years. Now voters have a chance to make it happen. A plan on the Nov. 2 ballot would increase the county sales tax by 1 cent to pay for new roads, enhanced bus service and a light rail system. The proposal offers commuters more options at lower costs than relying on a car. It makes more efficient use of tax dollars spent on transportation. And it would expand the economy by attracting new industries and redevelopment to older neighborhoods. This is the first step in creating a light rail system that would benefit the entire region, and Hillsborough voters should approve the measure.
Hillsborough ranks last or nearly last among comparable metropolitan areas in its ability to move people and goods. Commuters waste 50 hours a year stuck in traffic. Workers here earn less than the national average and spend more of their incomes on transportation because mass transit is so sparse. That is money that could be spent on housing, health care, education or business.
With the region's population expected to double to 7 million residents by 2050, business leaders have long realized that Hillsborough - as the region's population center - needs a more functional transit system to compete with other metro areas around the country. A system that enables workers to arrive on time and to be more productive during their commute are selling points to employers. Using mass transit to encourage growth in the urban areas also would protect natural resources and agriculture, a vital industry in Hillsborough.
The new sales tax would apply to the first $5,000 of purchases and generate $184 million per year starting in 2011. Three-fourths of the money would be used to expand bus service and build a light rail system. The remaining one-fourth would be spent on roads.
The plan has been vetted by every local transportation agency over the past several years, and it includes something for everybody. Most immediately, Hillsborough Area Regional Transit would double its 220-bus fleet. Buses that now run every half-hour would run every 10 or 15 minutes. HART would open 134 miles of new local routes and establish 315 miles of new express service that would connect the suburbs of Brandon, New Tampa, Apollo Beach and the northwest with the University of South Florida, the West Shore business district, MacDill Air Force Base, Plant City and downtown Tampa.
The plan would pay for 46 miles of light rail, with the first sections connecting USF to downtown and extending west to West Shore and Tampa International Airport. Lines would later reach Brandon, south Tampa and the Carrollwood area. Under a deal agreed to by Hillsborough's three cities, the money for roads would first be spent on unfunded projects in the suburbs. Among them: improvements to Bruce B. Downs Boulevard, Lithia-Pinecrest Road, Lutz-Lake Fern Road and U.S. 301.
The proposal also forms the foundation of a regional effort to better connect seven counties along Florida's central Gulf Coast. Leaders from Citrus County south to Sarasota are working on plans to create a bus and rail system that would connect commuters to the major cities in the Tampa Bay region, the beaches and three area international airports.
Giving commuters more options would save people time, money and hassle. In addition to adding routes and express bus service, Hillsborough would vastly expand the use of on-demand, van-based service, especially in the suburbs. Older residents in Sun City Center would have the convenience of passenger service and more easily avoid driving themselves.
Balancing the use of roads and mass transit makes smarter use of transportation dollars. Critics correctly point out the tax increase would make Hillsborough's sales tax rate 8 percent, the highest in the state. But the county has billions of dollars in unfunded road needs. And its main source of funding is already allocated for projects through 2026. The county needs to find a revenue source for transit, and under this plan about 20 percent of the tax proceeds would be paid by visitors. By spending more on mass transit, the county would reduce the need to buy or condemn private property to build wider roads, which takes land off the tax rolls. Bigger highways weaken the tax base of entire neighborhoods by increasing noise, traffic and visual blight.
Mass transit also would make the area more attractive to new industry and help keep businesses here. County officials should have decided on the alignment of the rail line before the referendum, because the routes will help determine how much new development occurs along the way. But a better transit system, regardless of which route is chosen, will make the area more competitive for clean and higher-paying jobs. And the rail system would tie into a high-speed line between Tampa and Orlando separately funded by the state and federal government. That should transform the bay area into a leading economic cluster.
The Hillsborough plan is a balanced, thoughtful strategy for building the type of transportation system the county recognized it needed decades ago. It is a critical step for the future of Hillsborough County and the entire Tampa Bay region. This region cannot afford to fall further behind its national competitors, and it is time to start to catching up. The Times recommends that Hillsborough voters approve the 1 cent sales tax for transportation.
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