A year after voters rejected an ambitious transportation package, Hillsborough County and the entire Tampa Bay region have lost serious ground on modernizing transit. HART, the county's mass transit agency, dropped its plan for light rail, lost its chief executive and pulled back on spending and major new initiatives. Rail's top political boosters have left or moved on to other pursuits. And the political climate for raising taxes has only worsened. It would be foolish to minimize these setbacks, but they also are opportunities for regional leaders to make a more compelling connection between better transit, jobs and a broader recovery.
The lingering effects of the recession made it tough last November for Hillsborough to swallow a 1-cent sales tax increase for roads, buses and rail. But the referendum cracked the ice in introducing the region to the concept of a modern transportation system. The measure passed in the city of Tampa, and it drew strong support in many conservative suburbs, where residents face costly and time-consuming commutes to work. Polls afterward showed that even opponents wanted a better plan brought back to the table. The effort also brought together political and business leaders on both sides of Tampa Bay.
But Gov. Rick Scott sapped any momentum soon afterward by killing federal funding for high-speed rail between Tampa and Orlando. Heat from antitax, tea party conservatives gave HART cold feet about pursuing rail down the road. Pinellas officials backed off a transit referendum for 2012. And the champion of Hillsborough's transit package, Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio, left office in April. Her successor, Bob Buckhorn, supported the referendum but has not laid out plans for bringing back a major transportation package.
In fairness, Buckhorn has not had much of a chance. And it looks premature, anyway, to put another tax to a vote next year. But local leaders cannot allow this vision or the coalition behind it — which were decades in the making — to slip away. The county's newly focused economic development agency should take the lead in laying a stronger link between quality transportation and quality jobs. This could be a good project for Commissioner Al Higginbotham, who has a strong working relationship with the mayor.
HART and the Pinellas transit agency are taking an early look at whether to consolidate some operations. Done correctly, this could lay the groundwork for a seamless, regional transportation network. An ongoing look at how to redevelop Tampa's older neighborhoods also could give Buckhorn a blueprint — and a strong economic argument — for bringing back a transit package. At the very least, the study by Urban Land Institute will give the city a fuller appreciation of how mass transit — even a decent bus system — could revive older neighborhoods and commercial districts, boost the tax base, put money into people's pockets and make the area more attractive.
The climate for new taxes will be tough politically even as the economy recovers. The goal now should be to keep the discussion on transit alive. Roads, buses and rail all have a role in making this region more competitive. Last year's vote was a setback, but it cannot be the final word.