Put transit package in the voters' hands

Published Monday, March 1, 2010

The transit package taking shape in Hillsborough County is solid, transparent and easy to have ready for the November ballot. The question is whether Commissioners Jim Norman and Al Higginbotham intend to sour the climate any further by distorting facts and ignoring the hard work that has brought the package this far.

Commissioners should move this week to put the measure on the ballot. The voters deserve to decide for themselves whether they want to build a modern transportation system. They will need time for an honest debate to make an informed choice.

County commissioners will meet Wednesday to consider the ballot language for a one-penny sales surtax that would pay for light rail, expanded bus service and roadway improvements. A commission meeting last week nearly broke down after Norman and other critics on the board charged the ballot language was misleading. Commissioner Rose Ferlita is now complaining that there are major questions about how the mass transit component would be financed and governed. These commissioners are either uninformed or outright denying the years of legwork behind the ballot proposal.

The transit package is one of the tidiest proposals the board has ever considered. Its three components — rail, bus and roads — would expand commuting options throughout the county. Financing for the work would be split fairly between mass transit and roads and among the county and the cities. And the rail line would be run by the county's existing mass transit agency.

Critics on the commission have no credibility arguing that the proposal is vague or has been inadequately vetted. No issue before the board over the past decade has been subject to more study, more internal and outside review, more technical analysis and more public involvement. The rail line would initially link the University of South Florida's Tampa campus to downtown and the airport and build from there. The bus system would vastly improve rapid service to the suburbs. And the county's rail line would be designed to connect with future rail lines in the adjoining counties.

The package is certainly more detailed and transparent than the half-penny Community Investment Tax that voters faced in 1996. The county put that tax on the ballot even before the city of Tampa had a list of projects the tax would fund. The contrast between then and now could not sharper. Commissioner Ken Hagan's transportation task force moved methodically over several years to propose this comprehensive package. His task force asked and answered every pertinent question. It generated a mountain of documents and put them on a Web site. Hagan should be commended for his exhaustive approach, and for reaching out as board chairman to keep these discussions on an even keel.

The issue right now is not the tax but the public's right to vote on it. Commissioners who believe the measure falls short have a responsibility to put their own alternatives on the table. Hillsborough County must address its traffic problems, and doing anything costs money. The referendum belongs on the ballot. All sides will have until November to argue their case.


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