Hillsborough County officials are watching the Pinellas transit referendum in November, which asks voters to approve a 1 percent sales tax to pay for expanded bus service and a new rail system, and wondering what the next step is for Hillsborough. The Pinellas effort has rekindled interest in transit in Hillsborough, but the discussion is unfocused. The county needs to sharpen its approach and learn from the failed Hillsborough transit referendum in 2010.
The rollout last week of the advocacy campaign for the Pinellas plan, called "Greenlight YES," is an important step in educating and selling voters on the vision. In Hillsborough, political, business and civic leaders are rekindling public interest in another transportation initiative. City and county officials are meeting to build consensus on a package of transportation priorities. Some want to tie road improvements more directly to jobs; others want to broaden the scope of the county's mass transit agency, Hillsborough Area Regional Transit, elevating HART from a transit provider to a larger agent of economic development. And younger activists are calling for greater urgency in bringing a new Hillsborough referendum to the ballot.
It's good news that Hillsborough officials are ready to move forward nearly four years after losing the flawed and incomplete plan for raising a 1 percent sales tax for transportation. The economy has improved, bus ridership has increased and more residents are realizing that expensive and frustrating road work — such as the remake of I-275 in Tampa — is not the entire answer. The challenge is channeling this new interest into a transit package that is pragmatic and appealing to the voters.
City and county officials meeting on transit should acknowledge that bus and rail must play a central role in any transportation fix. The local, state and federal governments do not have the money to keep condemning property and walling off entire neighborhoods to add more lanes. Officials also need to better explain to suburban residents why mass transit is important to preserving their lifestyles. Expanded bus service and a new rail system would limit sprawl and reduce the need for more road projects.
Philip Hale's retirement as HART's chief executive offers a chance to recast the agency's mission. It should spend less time complaining about its financial challenges and more time envisioning a sustainable future with more muscular service. HART chairman Mike Suarez should start raising expectations about what an ambitious transit operation could accomplish and position HART to take a lead role in developing the urban core and connecting the county's gateways and employment centers.
Those pushing for a fresh transit vote in Hillsborough should build on the momentum from Pinellas but put substance before expediency. Hillsborough's next transit package needs a clear route and a reasonable price tag for rail, a more robust role for buses and a timetable for taking the system to the suburbs and to Pinellas. It also needs to be backed by smarter land use policies that curb sprawl and preserve scarce transportation resources.
Hillsborough Commissioner Mark Sharpe should use his final year on the commission and his position as chairman to focus this debate. He should point to rail systems in Central and South Florida as examples of how the bay area has lost ground by not thinking regionally. Hillsborough already has learned from Pinellas' transit referendum effort by recognizing that any transit plan must be clear and easily understood months before the election. The first step in getting there, though, is for policymakers to figure out what they are selling besides vague promises.