Sunday, February 25, 2018
Opinion

Column: Hillsborough needs a transportation referendum sooner, not later

We can't wait for a new transportation plan and the half-cent sales tax to pay for it. There are no excuses, and no higher priorities for Hillsborough County and the 1.3 million residents trapped in gridlock.

This referendum needs to go on the ballot next year — not stay on hold until 2020. The Hillsborough County Commission should do it, and if they won't, 47,000 voters need to take the initiative with a petition to put this on the ballot.

Either way, we need a Mobility Initiative, and we need it FAST.

F is for forward thinking about mobility in all modes. Start with something as simple as buses. We need twice as many as we have now.

A is for automated vehicles in a connected system. Tampa was one of only three U.S. cities to receive a $17 million grant, on the Selmon Expressway.

S is for smart streets, safe bike paths and green spaces. When it comes to mowing down pedestrians and bicyclists, we are worst in the country.

T is for tracks, existing or new, to get people where they want to go. If new lines are too expensive, figure out how to use the CSX rail lines already in place. If Orlando can do it, so can we.

A half-penny of sales tax would raise $3.3 billion over the next 30 years, and we need that long-term commitment to leverage the investment with partners and neighbors.

With a guaranteed source of payback, the county could sell bonds and borrow money to get a jump-start on essential projects. The federal government would match local spending, giving Hillsborough voters more bang for their bucks.

A successful referendum in Hillsborough would embolden our neighbors in Pinellas and Pasco, struggling with their own transit sclerosis, and help make connections across the various parts of the Tampa Bay region. We could even connect to other parts of the state, via the railroad line being created from Miami to Orlando.

There is no time for delay. The average local family spends $17,000 a year on payments, gas, insurance and other costs of automobiles. Think of the thousands of Hillsborough residents who cannot afford that expense, and then add the thousands more of elderly and disabled who cannot drive.

As precious as money, think of all the time we spend tied up in traffic, millions of hours that we could put to more productive purposes with family, work or community.

Yes, there have been false starts and failed efforts to attract the support of Tampa Bay voters for transit initiatives. They are no reasons to remain timid now. We must also remember our successes and the bold vision of those who created them.

In 1890, Tampa started what became Florida's largest port. In 1971, we opened one of America's greatest airports. Both the port and airport are undergoing major investments in new capacity. We must have the same commitment to moving people and goods around the region once they get here.

Last year we added 36,000 new residents. If we want to keep them coming, we cannot rely just on a road system that is already choking. We do not have three years to wait. Let us not be distracted by the next recession, or new personalities or old arguments.

Hillsborough County needs a referendum on the transit tax, and we need it FAST.

Ron Weaver is a Tampa lawyer with a practice in land use and environmental law. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.

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