A vote for Hillsborough's future
May 12, 2010
When Hillsborough County commissioners meet Thursday night to decide if voters should get the chance to increase the local sales tax to pay for light rail and more buses and roads, the big issue will be the future.
Commissioners who focus on today's economic slowdown will be tempted to once again do nothing and leave the urban area unprepared for growth that will surely return.
It is easy to say taxes are high enough and that government cannot be trusted with more money. While Hillsborough has been saying that, most other urban counties have been busy building better bus and rail systems, and they have been happy to use our share of federal tax dollars to help pay for it all.
We urge commissioners to listen to local business leaders who understand the many benefits of a balanced transportation plan. Approve the referendum.
Tampa Bay Partnership, a nongovernment group advocating economic growth for the region, is supporting the small tax increase. It invites transportation supporters to wear green to the meeting Thursday to "show the Hillsborough County Commission just how broad the support is throughout the county for an improved and modern transit system."
The meeting will be from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. at All People's Life Center, 6105 E Sligh Ave., near King High School, in Tampa.
Some rail critics have complained that the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority, which would handle the rail investment, lacks a detailed plan for spending the one-cent increase in the sales tax.
That's not true. Here are a few of the highlights of HART's plan:
Annual inflation is assumed to be 2.5 percent. An operating reserve of 25 percent will be maintained to cover unexpected problems.
Revenue from the penny sales tax is expected to increase 4.04 percent per year until 2025. That increase is based on an expected increase in population as well as modest economic growth. The outlook for 2026 through 2040 is slightly less optimistic.
The plan covers the anticipated costs to build and operate the system, and to maintain it.
Riders' fares will cover about 15 percent of the costs at first and increase to 20 percent by 2022.
"This is conservative," the HART plan states, "since most light rail systems in operation generate about a 30 percent fare-box return."
Another assumption is that the federal government will cover half of the capital cost of the first two rail lines. The state is expected to chip in 10 percent.
More details are available on the Internet at http://www.hartline.org/whytransit/financial_plan.pdf.
HART's experts have no better crystal ball than anyone else, but their assumptions are reasonable for a region with a long history of economic progress.
The increase in the sales tax would be about 14 percent above the existing rate. If your family spends $1,200 a month on taxable items, which is typical, your sales tax would increase $12 a month.
No one likes a tax increase, but at least all the tax revenue would be spent locally.
Now part of our federal gasoline taxes are spent elsewhere, and increases in the cost of gasoline only enrich private investors and foreign countries.
Roads simply cannot be widened in key corridors. The cost of driving is sure to increase.
Building a more efficient transportation system that will provide travel options and focus desirable growth around train stations is a good idea - for the community's quality of life and its future economic prosperity.
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