Hillsborough County commissioners cannot continue to bury their heads in the sand while business executives, young professionals, entrepreneurs and the region's job development leaders plead for the county to build a modern transportation system. The calls are coming from all sides except the one that matters the most — the commission, which has the power to bring another transit package to the voters. Board members should quit misreading the political tea leaves and start working on transit so the region can better compete for jobs.
The clamor to act has reached a critical mass in recent months, as the business community sees Hillsborough dawdle while Orlando, Miami and Pinellas County move ahead with projects or voter referendums. Several hundred young professionals have been pressing for the county to pick up where the failed 2010 transit referendum left off. Last week, local CEOs made their pitch again, calling on city and county officials to get behind a multimodal system of roads, buses and new light rail service. The county's top job development chief echoed that call, saying that mass transit — including rail — was key to attracting high-paying industry and moving the Tampa Bay area into the top ranks of the nation's metropolitan markets. And Hillsborough's expressway authority has added its voice, proposing a managed toll-lane system that would further diversify transit options across the bay area and is worth a serious look.
But at County Center, where commissioners have been patting themselves on the back for committing tax money to attract warehouses and big-box retail stores, the silence on transit is deafening. Some commissioners say the failed vote in 2010 shows that residents oppose new taxes and mistrust government. Some believe the county can scrape together adequate funding from elsewhere in the budget. Others want to stall by reinventing the wheel and navel-gazing about whether buses or rail are really a solution. It all reflects the commission's unwillingness to take on the most conservative voters, who oppose any new taxes or investment in mass transit. As the economy recovers, the county is falling further behind other metro areas.
Commissioners need to get over the 2010 vote. That was a different economic climate. The county also erred by putting a plan to a vote before the details were finished. Yet the referendum still passed in the city of Tampa and in some of the older suburbs, where traffic and the cost of driving are quality-of-life and pocketbook issues. That situation will only get worse, as Commissioner Al Higginbotham should especially realize, as he faces a revolt by constituents for the unchecked growth in fast-developing east county.
In opinion polls, even voters who rejected the 2010 referendum said they want another crack at a better transit package down the road. That should not be surprising. Over the years, Hillsborough voters have agreed to new taxes for what they see as community priorities, from child welfare services, schools and public safety to the preservation of environmental lands. Creating a functional transit system that enables the economy to grow is no less vital to the future.
A panel of elected leaders from Hillsborough and its three cities has met as a sounding board in recent weeks to check the public's pulse on a new transit package. There is an appetite for action the commission cannot ignore, and leaders can do it right this time by completing a plan before establishing a timetable for a referendum. The enduring lesson from 2010 is not that Hillsborough voters are against mass transit. It's that they want a better plan.