Voters from all corners of Hillsborough County spoke clearly last fall in approving a one-cent sales tax for much-needed transportation improvements. But opponents on the losing side are using a lawsuit and ginned-up fears to delay carrying out the voters' will. That charade will play out in court, but at least until then local agencies have a duty to carry out the referendum and start producing results the voters expect.
The frustration with the pace of moving forward recently popped up again when a Hillsborough County Commission workshop that was supposed to focus on a project list devolved into another circular debate over the merits of Commissioner Stacy White's legal challenge to the referendum. White sued in December seeking to invalidate the 30-year sales tax, arguing that voters were confused and that the measure unlawfully shifted power over spending public money from elected commissioners to a non-elected independent oversight board.
In truth, voters knew exactly what was at stake with the referendum in November, which is why the vote wasn't close - with 57 percent supporting - and why it passed in both urban areas and the suburbs. And while the ballot measure prescribes money for a range of uses - road work, mass transit, safety improvements and the like - the actual projects will be determined by locally elected officials after an inclusive public participation process. The courts will decide the legal merits of White's case, but to characterize the referendum as misleading or a power grab is a cynical effort to rewrite facts and invalidate the results of an election.
County staff should compile recommendations for short and long-term projects from the list of unfunded transportation priorities that have circulated for years. The county also should name its appointees to the spending oversight board, clear any legal hurdles to issue bonds and finalize an agreement with other local agencies to resolve jurisdictional issues of the countywide tax. The incoming chief executive of HART, the county's mass transit agency, should get his organization prepared to expand bus routes, and he should strengthen his administration's outreach and communications arm as it prepares for an influx of more money and new demands. In short, local governments needs to legitimize the vote and put the lawsuit into context. There is a lot of work to do before shoveling any dirt, and much of that can happen simultaneously with resolving the legal challenge.
Commission chairman Les Miller sets the right tone by calling on local leaders to execute the operational aspects of the referendum and leave the legal challenge with the courts. Beyond approving the tax, Hillsborough voters in November also elected two new commissioners for countywide seats who ran on decidedly pro-transit agendas. The public's clamor for a safer and more efficient transportation system was expressed consistently up and down the local ballot. And the dozens of candidates for Tampa mayor and city council this year made transportation their top priority. There should be no timidity about moving forward.