The true costs of 'no' on transit
In November, voters in Hillsborough County will have an opportunity to approve a plan to invest in our county's failing transportation infrastructure and create a modern system of improved roads, buses and light rail.
Last week, an opinion piece in this newspaper questioned the fiscal responsibility of this initiative, citing costs, the burden on future generations and the availability of "alternatives" ("Full financial disclosure needed on transit tax," Other Views, Sept. 9). Every other metropolitan area of our size has rejected this argument - an argument tantamount to claiming manual typewriters can do the same job as computers at less cost. It misses the forest for the trees.
We must address our transportation needs. Failing to do so is damaging to our economic vitality and quality of life. And while it is fair and valid to consider the costs of this investment, it is a false comparison if we assume the cost of voting against this plan will be nothing. This biased and misleading approach ignores the real costs of road congestion, travel delay, taxpayer-subsidized road widening and deteriorating environmental quality.
Every year, drivers in our community waste 47 hours stuck in traffic, costing them more than $900 in congestion-related delays. As we continue to grow, these costs will grow. In the next 15 years, our county is expected to add almost 460,000 residents. The added pressure on roads will not only lead to an increase in personal congestion-related costs, but we will be forced to widen roads at exceptional costs.
Take, for example, the corridor between the University of South Florida and downtown Tampa. To accommodate future traffic, I-275 would need to be widened to 12 or 16 lanes at a cost of more than $2.2 billion. Compare that to the cost of building light rail, which for that segment is estimated at only $900 million. Due to the exorbitant cost of land acquisition and construction, light rail is more cost effective than highways once you exceed eight lanes.
Not only are roads more expensive to build in many places, but unlike public transportation, they are 100 percent subsidized. Fare-box revenue is conservatively projected to cover almost 9 percent of the cost of the transit portion of the plan. While opponents are quick to criticize this point, this overlooks the fact that roads generate zero rider fares and thus are paid for exclusively with public debt - unless they are proposing we make all of our roads toll roads.
What about buses? Buses are an important part of the solution and account for 82 percent of the operating costs of the transit portion of the plan, but they can't be the only solution. It is precisely because bus routes are flexible and can move around that they fail to encourage private investment and high-density development. This would result in a lost economic opportunity for our community at a time we desperately need one. Buses only would condemn us to a future of continued haphazard growth, consuming our natural lands and rural communities.
This is the true burden we will bestow on our children and grandchildren if we fail to act now to tackle our transportation challenges. It is shortsighted to ignore the environmental costs of continuing to rely exclusively on automobiles and buses. Our children are already suffering from higher asthma rates brought on by air pollution. If we don't act soon to address our air quality issues, the federal government will withhold our highway funds as it did previously in Atlanta - to disastrous effect.
It's true there will be a debt to pay that will be borne by future generations. However, it is a debt smaller than we would incur by investing in roads alone. Further, it is false to claim that by not approving this plan, we will rescue our children from federal debt related to transit. This overlooks the fact that state and federal funds set aside for transit will be spent for communities that qualify for funding. Unless we start moving forward on a rail plan of our own, our children will incur that debt for the benefit of other communities.
This system is really for them. It will keep our children here, rather than chasing them to more progressive communities. The fiscally responsible decision is to vote "FOR" countywide transportation on Nov. 2.