Three years have passed since voters rejected a transit referendum in Hillsborough County, and since then rail advocates have all but apologized and promised not to bring back another package anytime soon. That was the wrong reaction, but the elected leadership from the county and its cities are taking a positive step by reviving transportation talks. Now those talks need direction and a sense of urgency. Mass transit, including rail, must be part of the discussion if Hillsborough hopes to compete for business and improve its quality of life.
County commissioners and the mayors of Hillsborough's three cities didn't break any new ground at last month's summit. The point was to get all the players together, put the 2010 failure behind them and refocus attention on the area's transit needs. But even these low expectations could not hide the level of denial that some officials are in about the drawbacks of the county's transit system that make it more difficult for the county to attract business and residents from other markets.
There is a difference between reviving this conversation and starting from scratch. The 2010 referendum failed, but it also established that Hillsborough's reliance on roads and a skeletal, underfunded bus system is a barrier to growth. The problem was the rail route was incomplete, the economy was tough and most elected leaders took potshots at the plan or stayed on the sidelines.
This history matters, because some officials are drawing the wrong lessons from 2010 as an excuse to dial back the extent that mass transit and new revenue need to play. That completely misreads the message from voters, who suggested they wanted another crack at an improved transit package down the road. And that timidity is drawing new fire from young professionals and entrepreneurs — the very talent the county and city are spending public money to attract — who see the stalling as a larger problem of weak and uninspired leadership.
The county has suggested it intends to hold off on any serious transit talk until it identifies new areas to cluster industry. That is a delaying tactic and a strategy for more sprawl. Hillsborough already has economic centers — downtown, the West Shore business district, the University of South Florida. The challenge is to connect those areas and link them to established population centers across the county — whether in Tampa, Brandon, Westchase or Apollo Beach. That's the first step in catching up to Central and South Florida, where counties are using state support for regional rail to gain a competitive edge.
The private sector was far ahead of the county's elected leadership on transit in 2010, and that gap has only widened. Business leaders need to move the discussion by framing a transportation package in the same transformational terms that earlier leaders used to get behind Tampa's port, airport and universities. However unpopular a discussion over taxes might be, the reality is that Hillsborough doesn't have enough revenue to address even the backlog in road projects. And while the transit system has deteriorated since 2010, the political climate for fixing it has improved. These talks need to seize the moment.