The comments last week by the chairman of Hillsborough County's mass transit agency illustrate why this region continues to lag behind other major metro areas in mass transit. Mike Suarez, the chairman of Hillsborough Area Regional Transit, scoffed at the notion that the county would be ready to present a transit package to the voters in 2016. "The boat has sailed on that," he said. Best to wait until 2018. That's a stall that has played out for decades, and it reflects a lack of vision and leadership that continues to hurt Hillsborough and the Tampa Bay region.
Suarez tried later to distance himself from his remarks, which only reinforced how squishy and isolated the political leadership of Hillsborough's transit agency is as every other major player in the county moves to create a comprehensive transportation package. Suarez is off on the timing and tone deaf about the politics; Hillsborough has plenty of time to craft a viable transit package that could be put before the voters in 2016. The only question is whether the county's political leaders will use these two years to work in good faith to create a comprehensive proposal.
Hillsborough is preparing a transit package in the shadow of Pinellas County's Greenlight Pinellas transit referendum in November, which would dedicate a new 1-cent sales tax to bus and rail projects. Hillsborough recognizes that it cannot continue to fall further behind, and local leaders expect to present a similar package in August, with an eye to holding a referendum in 2016.
While Hillsborough has learned from its failed transit vote in 2010, the substance of this latest effort remains to be seen. A county working group that was supposed to present the package in June scotched that timetable and postponed its meetings until August, meaning that any transit plan would not become an issue in this year's Aug. 26 primary election for County Commission. Suarez also fears any plan will be filled with road projects in an attempt to generate suburban support. Under the 2010 plan, the county would have spent 75 percent of its penny-tax proceeds on mass transit, with 25 percent for roads. Any new package should allocate at least that much for transit.
But the idea that Hillsborough cannot be ready is too pessimistic. Officials from the county and its three cities could coalesce around a comprehensive transit package over the next year, craft the necessary legal documents, agree on ballot language and submit plans for matching state and federal dollars. The county already has a framework from 2010 that in many respects needs only updating. And these efforts — legal, planning and budgeting — can proceed simultaneously. That would still give supporters a year or more to sell the plan to voters.
Punting for another four years on a Hillsborough transit package would be foolish, and giving credibility to the notion of a delay gives county commissioners an out from even considering putting a referendum on the 2016 ballot. HART needs to take a leading role in this debate. It can start by showing the vision and resolve to make up for lost time.