Daniel Ruth

Voters driven around the bend

Perhaps one of the unintended benefits of Tuesday's rejection of a Hillsborough County 1-cent transit tax is that now vast members of the citizenry will have the luxury of plenty of time on their hands to think about the consequences of their vote while they sit stuck like a vehicular Stonehenge in a morass of traffic on the byways of our fair hamlet.

Have a nice time.

Tax increases of any sort are always a tough sell, especially when the ultimate pay-off is some years off in the distance. Voters don't do the vision thing very well.

That's not a knock on the body politic. We are in the midst of tough economic times.

And thus asking people to invest in what would eventually become an enormous public works project while they are struggling to pay their mortgages was a bit like asking beleaguered post-World War II Germans to accept a new tax to build more tanks.

While there are certainly exceptions, generally speaking voters are sometimes willing to accept a tax increase for tangible stuff they can see — better schools, more cops, more roads for people to be stranded on as they complain about all the traffic. It also helps if you throw in a publicly funded free stadium for a billionaire football owner to become an even bigger billionaire football owner.

We do have our priorities.

Moving Hillsborough Forward, the group supporting the light rail tax plan, attempted to make the argument that the 1-cent sales tax would serve as an economic stimulus, creating gobs of construction jobs while enhancing the region's economic development by attracting business investment.

But nearly 60 percent of the electorate didn't care. A tax is a tax is a tax. Bad, bad, bad, bad.

Ironies abound.

Still, it would be interesting to know how many of these "hell no" to more taxes and perceived wasteful government spending voters — who got all huffy over light rail transit — also cast a ballot in favor of Gov.-elect Rick Scott, whose most significant claim to fame was leading a company that engaged in the biggest case of Medicare fraud (read: stealing from taxpayers).

It will probably be some time before the public is asked to consider funding a light rail system. But that doesn't mean the need for it will go away.

Other communities — Charlotte, N.C., Portland, Ore., and the Miami area, for example — all eventually embraced the need for light rail as a means to enhance the quality of life and economic futures of the populace.

But in the Tampa Bay region, any discussion to implement a light rail transit system has historically gone over with the public about as well as making Esperanto the official community language.

The ugly, dirty little truth about efforts to bring light rail to the region is that while all its benefits — easing traffic, saving energy, attracting investment — are self-evident, supporters also conveniently overlook the dark side of creating Choo-Choo-ville.

Really now, this is Hillsborough County — oftentimes the land that scruples forgot.

Voters who either support or oppose light rail know intuitively the prospect of introducing such a massive transportation overhaul would eventually involve cost overruns, moments of incredible incompetence, malfeasance and, of course, for old time's sake — corruption.

On the one hand, light rail truly did represent a gateway to the brighter future. It also held out the potential to be a humming indictment machine.

That's not to say the architects of the plan were crooked. It is to say once you start involving contractors, subcontractors and sub-sub-subcontractors all engaged in a massive, open-ended, decadeslong public works project you begin to run the risk of accountability becoming the red-headed stepchild of irresistible greed.

At the same time, voters look around Hillsborough County — oftentimes the land that common sense forgot — and see other efforts such as the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway double-decker project, which at one point began to sink faster than the BP oil rig, or the original design of the Veterans Expressway, which made a Chinese fire drill look like a precision exercise, and they might think yet another transportation Rube Goldberg Machine was being foisted upon them.

It is difficult, given the traffic engineering legacy rivaling Monty Python's wooden badger, to buy into something as complex and challenging as a light rail system.

So should taxpayers be forgiven for their misgivings on election night? Sure.

But is light rail still a much-needed addition to the quality and economic life of the community? Absolutely.

It's a civic conundrum to drive anyone crazy.

Voters driven around the bend 11/04/10 [Last modified: Thursday, November 4, 2010 9:42pm]

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