Rail is a sensible stretch
February 25, 2010
In the history of a community, some days are more important than others. For Tampa and Hillsborough County, today is a potential turning point.
At a workshop starting at 9 a.m., county commissioners have a chance to resolve the issues standing in the way of a November referendum on transportation.
If they do, they will almost certainly give voters a chance in November to increase the sales tax. If not, an opportunity to improve bus service and add a passenger rail line will be lost and progress delayed.
The issues, including how to fairly allocate the revenue from a 1 cent increase in the sales tax, can be easily settled with compromise and good faith.
As with any major undertaking, it is easier to criticize and delay than to make the effort to move ahead. But think what the city would be like if previous generations had balked at taking calculated risks.
Grabbing the moon
We were reminded of some of those civic achievements the other day when someone sent us a copy of an editorial from this page 54 years ago. The writer called 1956 "the year Tampa reached for the moon - and got a handhold on it."
A new state university had been proposed, and the editorial called it a prize that comes "only once in a city's lifetime."
The editorial predicted the university would have more impact culturally and economically than anything that had happened in Tampa during the past 100 years. From our vantage point a half century later, we don't find the enthusiasm exaggerated.
Also that year, big, bold improvements were being planned for the downtown waterfront and the airport. The editorial called for more, including a new fairgrounds and the redevelopment of Ybor City.
In the mid 1950s, when Hillsborough County had a third of its present population, the editorial stressed the importance of a lively core.
"Without a strong downtown center," it said, "a city breaks up into a lumpy collection of neighborhood shopping and recreation districts."
Today, the transit plan to be funded by a new sales tax would help the central business area by making it more accessible to residents all over the county. More frequent bus service to more areas, and more express lines, are planned, along with the rail.
Many plans, involving much research and public dialogue, are moving on parallel tracks.
The regional transportation authority will make sure Hillsborough's plans fit into the multi-county vision. The federally funded high-speed rail to Orlando will have a station in Tampa with connections to the local transit system.
Plans have been drawn to change the land use around local train stops to allow for high-quality urban growth, where appropriate, while preserving existing neighborhoods.
A task force, headed by Commissioner Ken Hagan, has identified some roads that need to be improved if the transportation tax passes. Some of these improvements should have been made by developers who profited from the growth, critics argue.
In fact, Hillsborough has long charged developers only a small percentage of the cost of meeting the transportation needs of new houses and stores. With revenue from other sources inadequate for the backlog of needs, worsening traffic congestion was inevitable.
Fixing some of these deficiencies is a good thing, but it won't open the doors to irresponsible growth. Easy loans on overpriced houses in remote locations aren't going to return again for a long time.
The slowdown in building activity is a good time to redesign the county's growth strategy to be more conservative and ultimately less costly to taxpayers by putting more new homes and businesses near transit lines.
That is really what today's meeting is about, not the pesky details. The challenge is to look ahead, the way this community looked ahead to build the first Sunshine Skyway Bridge in the early 1950s, Tampa General Hospital, one of the world's best airports and, of course, a great university, the University of South Florida.
More recently, the community built an innovative, reversible, elevated expressway that was bitterly criticized while under construction. It enhanced a toll road that itself was ridiculed when initially built.
Now highway officials from all over the world visit Tampa and Brandon to see the prize-winning road.
"A city that stands on tiptoe sees opportunities" other cities miss, we said in 1956, and it is worth repeating today.
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