Vote yes on transit

The Tampa Tribune

The most far-reaching decision Hillsborough voters will make on Election Day is whether to support a surtax for new local rail, more buses and better roads.

Only by adding one cent per dollar to the sales tax can the county afford to make the transportation improvements necessary to attract new business and meet travel needs.

Simply adding enough highway lanes to meet the growing demand would be too expensive, even if folks didn't mind sacrificing homes, businesses and parking lots to widen roads.

Passing the tax will bring immediate improvements in bus service countywide. Key roads in the suburbs will be improved that otherwise will remain congested.

And rail service will begin from the New Tampa area through the University of South Florida, to downtown Tampa and on through the WestShore business district to Tampa International Airport.

Many questions remain about the rail plan, but voters should keep this in mind. Every decision will be made locally, by locally elected and appointed officials. An independent committee of experts and citizens will oversee how the tax dollars are spent.

Plans call for rail eventually to serve all urbanized areas of the county and link to a regional system. These plans, drawn with extensive community participation, make sense.

That explains the wide support for passage of the transportation referendum. Endorsing it are the Tampa Bay Builders Association as well as the Sierra Club.

Because no area is left out, it has won suburban support, including the Greater Brandon Chamber of Commerce.

USF students support it, as does the Greater Tampa Association of Realtors and NAACP Hillsborough.

The plan is good for the people of the county and good for business. Bus service would be extended to Plant City and other areas that need it.

The ballot question is complicated and possibly confusing. Here it is simplified and broken up: Shall countywide transportation improvements be funded by a one percent sales surtax? Seventy-five percent would be spent on buses and local rail, and 25 percent on roads and nontransit improvements. Spending would be reviewed by an independent oversight committee.

Opponents say the plan is too expensive, but they don't offer an alternative other than stagnation. Current gasoline taxes bring in barely enough to maintain local roads, much less expand them.

Critics say only a small percentage of us will ride the train. But it's also true that only a small percentage use I-75 or the airport on any given day.

A large percentage of local residents and businesses will benefit directly from better transit. HART, the bus agency that would operate the rail system, has managed to increase ridership 9 percent and add service since 2007 even as property tax revenue fell 22 percent.

In hard economic times, more families must find ways to save, and riding the bus is far less expensive than driving a car.

A rail and bus system would help those who cannot drive, particularly the elderly and the disabled, maintain their independence.

About 20 percent of the tax will be paid by tourists and visitors, and fares paid by riders will cover 20 to 25 percent of the operating costs.

A strong transit system will attract more federal matching dollars. For years, our federal gasoline taxes have subsidized trains and buses in other cities.

Former U.S. Rep. Jim Davis, a leader of the campaign to pass the measure, says, "We can't wait for Washington or Tallahassee to do this for us."

He's right. The future of the entire region depends on the wisdom of Hillsborough voters.

Three turning points define local history, says Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio. The first was when the railroad came and the 800-person town began to grow.

The second was the construction of Tampa International Airport, which put the city on the map.

The third was winning a National Football League franchise, which gave the city national visibility.

A fourth will be supporting much better transit, and she is optimistic.

"The history of our community is that we always keep doing better," says Iorio.

Voters have a historic chance to bring more and better opportunities for workers, students, businesses owners and commuters. Passage of the transportation surtax will be a vote for a cleaner, more prosperous future.

On the Hillsborough transit initiative, The Tampa Tribune urges citizens to vote yes.

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