Thursday, February 22, 2018
Transportation

Carlton: Enough stalling on fixing our transportation woes

When it comes to making progress on transit, we seem perpetually stuck in traffic.

Or, for a more archaic analogy: When political leaders start talking about how to pay for improving buses and roads and, yes, adding rail, sometimes it starts to feel like we're pulling on the reins of the world's most obstinate mule.

Those who believe it possible to move our transit system into, say, this century, have high hopes pinned on November's Greenlight Pinellas referendum for a new penny sales tax.

Hillsborough County, still smarting from its own failed tax-for-transit referendum four years ago, looks to try again in 2016. That's a full two years to put the finishing touches on a thoughtful, detailed and comprehensive transit package, to listen to constituents and to educate voters on what they are being asked to pay for.

Wait — did somebody say 2016?

At a recent meeting with the Times editorial board, Mike Suarez — Tampa city councilman, chairman of Hillsborough Area Regional Transit and member of the countywide group working on transportation issues — raised some eyebrows with this:

As far as getting it done for 2016, Suarez said, "I think the boat has sailed on that. There's no way we're going to put out a referendum and get the kind of synergy that Greenlight (Pinellas) has."

"I think we need more time," he said, and opined that 2018 "would be better for us."

As in, four more years, despite other leaders who are determined we can get this done. Sigh. Did I mention that mule?

Hillsborough Commissioner and transit enthusiast Mark Sharpe went with a different transportation analogy for this: "We just all need to quit posturing and row together," he texted this week. "We can most certainly be ready and have a quality public education campaign for a successful referendum in 2016."

(If you doubt Sharpe's commitment to transit, remember this: He is the guy who once made his weary family returning to Tampa International Airport after a trip take the public bus home. He wanted them to experience firsthand how badly set up we are for even that basic city need.)

Tampa's mayor, too, expressed confidence in 2016.

So is it called "backpedaling" in transportation circles? Suarez told me he made a mistake and mixed up his years with those comments. He said he meant to highlight the great job Pinellas leaders have done with their Greenlight push and to say Hillsborough should have started sooner. And he said he doesn't see any reason we can't do a referendum in 2016.

By the way, isn't it classically Tampa that plans for a high-speed commuter ferry across the water between south Hillsborough and MacDill Air Force base pushes ahead while these broader transit needs seem to hit nothing but speed bumps?

Naysaying gets us nowhere when getting nowhere is what we're trying to fix. If there are real concerns about a lack of progress — or "synergy" — in Hillsborough's effort, leaders need to hit the gas.

Taxpayers will have legitimate concerns before agreeing to this — how does the money divide up between buses, rail and roads? Will it go where they need to be?

But the goal has to be getting it done instead of red-lighting anything resembling progress. Otherwise, we're just stuck on that mule.

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