The Times' editorial on Sunday meaningfully contributed to the discussion about the Nov. 2 transportation referendum in Hillsborough County. It concluded that the "Tampa Bay area desperately needs a modern transportation system" and that Hillsborough has a "thoughtful plan" and a "compelling vision" to accomplish this. But the editors worry that voters may not "look beyond their individual, immediate financial concerns" in supporting a 1 cent sales tax to finance this plan even though it is "an investment with bigger dividends." The editorial suggests that voters need answers to questions about how the referendum will benefit them.
The transportation plan will benefit county voters in many ways. Most directly, it will improve mobility for all county residents. It will raise funds for much-needed road projects throughout Hillsborough. Fully 25 percent of the 1-cent sales tax will be used for this purpose, as well as to improve bike and pedestrian facilities. And 32 percent will be used for expanded, countywide bus service. Only 23 percent of county residents are now served by good or excellent bus service. The plan will increase this to 79 percent. It will fund express buses, bus rapid transit (BRT), more local buses with more frequent service, and improved paratransit for the disabled. The remaining 43 percent of the proceeds will fund a light rail system along major corridors.
The referendum will benefit voters even if they never use this system. It will create tens of thousands of quality jobs. These will include everything from construction and engineering jobs to new jobs in service and retail that come from new development around stations. For every dollar invested in transit, the private sector invests $4 to $6 in development along the line. This form of development is compact and saves land, energy, air and water. This is why the Sierra Club and environmentally concerned voters support this referendum.
The plan is crucial to attracting and retaining businesses. Businesses need infrastructure, including modern transportation to move their employees and customers and to spur mixed-use development to attract and retain employees. This is why so many businesses in Tampa Bay have invested in this campaign.
The Times has asked about the routes for the light rail system. HART has specifically identified the alternative routes it is considering and is inviting public input. The fact that HART hasn't yet completed its analysis is no reason to vote against this plan. The selection of any of the alternative routes would result in a modern and cost-effective transit system that offers all of the anticipated benefits.
It is important to consider the consequences if we don't approve this plan. Population growth and unsightly development will continue to mount, and traffic will increasingly outstrip our deteriorating roads, forcing the county to add more lanes at exorbitant cost. The county faces a $15 billion dollar shortfall for roadwork. We will be forced to pay additional taxes or tolls for less benefit.
Congestion imposes other costs upon Hillsborough residents. In Tampa Bay, residents spend more than 20 percent of their annual income on transportation, one of the nation's highest rates. According to AAA, owning, operating and maintaining a mid-size sedan costs around $8,000 each year, not including car payments. Congested traffic wastes more dollars than it will cost to fund this initiative. Transportation options allow families to reduce their reliance on cars and related costs. Without modern transit, we will continue to lose ground to more progressive communities and suffer an erosion of our business and employment base.
Much is riding on the outcome of this referendum for the economic health of our region. Hillsborough is not the only county planning improved transportation. Other counties, including Pinellas and Pasco, are working on referendums. Planning is under way to link Pinellas and Hillsborough by light rail. If Hillsborough County voters reject this referendum, other counties will have nothing to connect to. There will be a vast transit hole between Polk and Pinellas, Pasco and Manatee, and so on.
The county's transportation plan offers a compelling vision and should be adopted. A broad coalition of stakeholders, including large and small businesses, environmentalists, community organizations, workers, labor unions, students, senior citizens and voters of every stripe have scrutinized the overall plan and concluded it is right for Hillsborough. If the case for a countywide transportation system can never be 100 percent certain, the case against a countywide transportation system almost certainly spells very bad things for our future. The best decision is to vote for countywide transportation to move Hillsborough forward.
Gary Sasso is chairman of Moving Hillsborough Forward, chairman of the Tampa Bay Partnership, and CEO of Carlton Fields.