Let residents vote on rail
Devember 2, 2009
Hillsborough County commissioners can't be expected today to have detailed answers to every conceivable question about future trains and buses. Yet they have plenty of facts and reasonable assumptions to support giving county voters a chance to approve a tax increase for transportation.
To vote against holding a referendum next year would be to endorse a highways-only transportation system. It would be surrender to congestion and suburban sprawl, because it might take years to get back to today's decision point.
Voting yes on the transportation task force's recommendation would not be a vote for a tax increase. It would be a vote of confidence in the people of Hillsborough County, who would have nearly a year to consider the issue before they cast their ballots next November.
There is much to consider. A one-cent increase in the sales tax would be significant. Not everyone would use the new train and buses, and there is no guarantee surrounding counties would follow Hillsborough's example and link to the rail system. Costs are uncertain at this stage, and ridership can only be estimated.
But allowing congestion to increase, with no good option to get through it, will discourage business growth and investment.
This area has built a huge and highly successful university, a world-class airport and lively business and entertainment centers.
It encouraged the construction of comfortable housing developments in all directions. The next step is linking these assets with a modern transportation system.
Critics say there is no guarantee of federal and state support, and they're right, but it's also true that without a rail system, this area will be sure to remain on the disqualified list.
Meanwhile, federal taxes collected here are supporting job-creating rail projects in other cities.
Big civic projects are never risk-free, and historic changes in growth patterns and public investment don't come easy.
But it should be revealing to Hillsborough commissioners that the Tampa area is one of the last major urban areas to build a rail transit line.
Everywhere ordinary working folks have been given a chance to see, touch and use a modern train, they have embraced it and wanted more.
Salt Lake City is celebrating its train's 10th anniversary on Friday, and the Salt Lake City Tribune reports that construction is under way to expand the system to 10 times its original reach.
Phoenix is asking the federal government for $75 million to help expand its rail system. Sacramento is extending its rail line to the airport. The final section of Seattle's rail line to the airport is to open Dec. 19.
Here in Hillsborough, two contradictory criticisms are being leveled at any commissioner willing to give voters a choice. The first is that allowing the issue to go to a vote is to be pro-tax. The second is that holding a vote is pointless because the tax is sure to fail.
Both can't be true; in fact, neither is. The vote could go either way.
But after the rail issue has been argued for 20 years, surely the time has come to find out what ordinary people think.
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