Advocates for mass transit were justly disappointed last week by Hillsborough County's decision to pledge virtually all of its new transportation package to roads at the expense of buses, ferries and downtown rail. This decision was as predictable as it was backward, and it shows the heavy lift that transit supporters and realists within the business community still face in getting county commissioners and the electorate behind a modern, effective transportation system.
Newly elected Commissioner Pat Kemp did her best to bring some balance to this proposal. Of the $812 million in new money the county will spend over the next 10 years, only $1 million goes to transit, and even that is for planning and pilot projects. The rest goes for road widening and traffic signals ($379 million), road maintenance ($276 million) safety projects ($127 million) and other incidentals. This is another lavish outlay for uncontrolled growth in the suburbs.
Still, Wednesday's decision is hardly the last word on transit. The board had largely agreed on this package last fall, before Kemp won election. Her lone vote against it masked a broader interest among commissioners to move ahead on transit in several areas, both through expanding bus service and exploring water taxis. The discussion also helped by highlighting the huge public costs of sprawl in Hillsborough's suburbs, which should become an election issue of managing growth. And it singled out one bloated plan in particular — the $97 million widening of Lithia Pinecrest Road — which typifies the losing game of subsidizing the region's car culture.
This plan does bring some much-need maintenance money to the table, but the problem remains that regional transit still needs a new revenue stream. The bus systems in Hillsborough and Pinellas are nearly tapped out, even as more commuters are crossing the area bridges to work, play and live. The county and the region need to get serious about the chronic weakness of an underfunded bus system, the cost that traffic congestion poses to families, employers and the region's quality of life, and the risks of falling further behind as other metropolitan areas invest and grow.
Sen. Tom Lee, who has represented conservative east Hillsborough for years, told the Tampa Bay Times editorial board last week that while the business community has stepped up in support of transit initiatives in recent years, business leaders have not followed through from writing checks for these campaigns to winning over the electorate. Last year's Go Hillsborough effort never reached the ballot, but at least officials made a stronger economic case why an improved transit system serves urban and suburban areas alike. Indeed, congestion hurts the suburbs more than urban areas. And an efficient transportation system is key to protecting agriculture and rural lifestyles.
If the county is looking for a quick and meaningful way to contribute, it could help the city of Tampa expand the streetcar, which runs from Ybor City to downtown. On Tuesday, the city will host one of several meetings this spring on expanding service. The streetcar needs to continue north from downtown, loop into Tampa Heights and continue back to its Ybor base. That would give residents and tourists alike a new and more convenient option for navigating the city center.
The streetcar is fine. But the county and the region need a much broader vision for expanding mass transit and the money to make it a reality. Roads are important, but they need to be just one part of a broader network — one that works for residents and businesses across the bay area. A region that has studied this for decades cannot wait another 10 years.