Tough politics of transit
March 2, 2010
Hillsborough County has gained a national reputation for its traffic jams and hazardous roads.
Commuters here waste more time getting to work than almost anywhere else, and the streets are among the deadliest for pedestrians and bicyclists.
To understand why these problems haven't been fixed, review the recent discussions of Hillsborough County commissioners on a possible increase in the sales tax for rail, buses and roads.
They're moving at a snail's pace and appear on the verge of stopping, as have other efforts in the past. All commissioners managed to approve at a recent workshop - on a 4-3 vote - was a formula already agreed to by county staff and the mayors of Tampa, Plant City and Temple Terrace, on how to share the 25 percent of the tax revenue that will be spent on roads.
Commissioners Mark Sharpe, Ken Hagan, Kevin Beckner and Kevin White were on the winning side, which is taking an increasing amount of heat from the vocal opponents of transit.
We commend these four for keeping the process moving toward a November referendum, although much remains to be decided before they vote on whether or not to put the issue to voters eight months from now.
Possible ballot language presented to the board by the county attorney mentioned "rapid transit," but not rail. Commissioner Jim Norman is right that voters would be confused about what they were authorizing to be built.
Both sides of the debate should demand more clarity.
Norman is purposely muddying matters when he claims it's unfair that most of the rail investment will be made inside the Tampa city limits - to the detriment of taxpayers in the unincorporated areas. The rail routes were chosen to serve population and work centers and the University of South Florida. It wouldn't matter if the city limits included the entire county; the areas needing rail transit would be the same.
Everyone will pay the same sales tax, including tourists and out-of-county commuters buying things here. Residents of south Tampa, just like residents of Brandon, will be served by buses, not a rail line, in the immediate future. The issue is not city vs. county.
Norman is right that a major part of the plan involves rail and it shouldn't be hidden in a confusing euphemism, but he's wrong that the issue is a Tampa train.
Beckner put it plainly and accurately: "It's not all about a train. It's about a multimodal transportation system that, yes, includes light rail."
And it's also about making some progress on the county's backlog of dangerous roads.
Hagan said, "If this referendum doesn't go forward, there's no money for these road projects."
Questions were raised at the meeting about what happens if circumstances change. What if there is no federal and state aid available to help build the rail portion of the project?
If flexibility is built in, voters won't know exactly what they're voting on. If the plan is rigid, future politicians will be stuck with a spending formula that might not fit future needs.
Either approach has its risks, but the do-nothing approach is certain of failure.
There is much that cannot be known in advance, including exactly what the bids will be to build the rail line and stations.
Such uncertainty hasn't stopped other cities and counties from dealing with the crush of automobile traffic that comes to every successful metropolitan area.
Those safer, more mobile areas had leaders who cared more about the community's long-term welfare than scoring short-term political points. Years from now will the people of Hillsborough say the same?