No more stalling on transit plan

Published Tuesday, February 23, 2010

It's crunch time for a transit package in Hillsborough County, which means the stalling, fear tactics and demagoguery are in full swing. There are legitimate reasons to question a plan likely headed to voters in November that would raise the county sales tax by 1 cent to pay for roads, buses and light rail. But county Commissioners Jim Norman and Al Higginbotham seem more interested in stirring the pot than in dealing with the issues openly and honestly. Voters deserve better, and the commission should not allow two members who have contributed nothing positive to this process to hijack it.

Norman and Higginbotham have ramped up their criticism since being on the losing end of the commission's 5-2 vote last year to place the transit tax on the ballot. (The commission must hold a final vote, expected next month.) They complained that the transit plan was fragmented, not transparent enough and based on shaky financial assumptions.

Those claims are not credible. The plan was vetted over a two-year period by a task force that included appointees by every commissioner, including Norman and Higginbotham. The group coordinated its work with state and regional transportation agencies, and it expressly called for Hillsborough to design a transit plan that was regional in nature. The one-penny sales tax is the only levy that raises enough for a functional rail and bus system and puts a dent in the county's $4 billion in unfunded road needs.

The criticisms now are even more irresponsible. Norman claims the 25 percent that would go for roads is essentially a bribe so voters swallow 75 percent going to buses and rail. Actually, the task force recognized that the county's road needs were so great they deserved the full 25 percent maximum allowed by state law. The two commissioners still complain the details are vague. At a meeting the other day, Norman called the proposal a "pig" while Higginbotham called the plan a "snake."

Rather than put an alternative on the table, the two are resorting to name-calling and confusing the issue. The effect has been to paralyze the professional staff — already led by a weak county administrator — from offering strong policy guidance. One commissioner who joined the 5-2 majority in pushing the plan last year, Rose Ferlita, now says she has questions about whether the proposal can be ready for November.

These are stalling tactics. The plan would create a strong, diversified transit system. It provides for public oversight of the money and creates no new level of government. The region would be eligible for new state funding for commuter rail, and it could capitalize on the federal money Florida just won to build high-speed rail between Tampa and Orlando. Pinellas County is looking to Hillsborough's lead, as are other counties throughout the bay area.

There will be a time for voters to decide whether one penny is too much, whether the county needs rail and whether opponents have anything to offer beyond doing nothing and leaving households even more vulnerable to the swings in gasoline prices. But to contend the plan is not diversified or regional in scope distorts a proposal that came from more than four years of unprecedented planning at the state and regional levels. Commissioners need to get on with it. Voters need time to study the plan to make an informed choice in November.

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