Hillsborough County's decision to convene a summit on transportation this spring holds some promise if it aims high. The idea is for county commissioners and the mayors of Tampa, Temple Terrace and Plant City to embrace a priority list of transportation projects and a strategy to pay for them. After 15 years of talks that have gone nowhere and a flawed transit referendum that failed in 2010, the last thing the county needs is another conversation on transportation that wastes time and fails to address the major challenges. Officials should bring a transit package back to the voters that seriously addresses the county's needs and improves the region's ability to compete.
The summit, expected in the next six weeks, would include Hillsborough Area Regional Transit, the county's transit agency, in what could be the most comprehensive set of talks since voters rejected the penny transit tax referendum. Officials have been fuzzy about their goals other than to bring the major players to the table and to underscore the importance of a quality transportation system to the regional economy. That's fine, but the summit must lead to a clear plan to create a multimodal transit system and a timetable to pay for it.
The commissioners inspire little public confidence that they intend to meet either of those challenges. They joke about their lack of interest in tax increases and other hard choices, especially in an election year. Commissioners also are changing their approach to transportation, looking to pay for projects that attract new industry rather than ease congestion. This is a misguided strategy in the wrong hands, and it has the potential to morph into developer pork at the expense of commuters stuck in traffic.
Tying road money to jobs cannot become a diversionary tactic to draw attention away from the county's failure to tackle its backlog of unfunded transportation needs. It cannot become a back-door way to fund the next retail development at the taxpayers' expense. And the quest for jobs should not be used to justify investing in disconnected transportation projects, such as Hillsborough's $6 million in road work for a Bass Pro Shops near Brandon, that do not serve a broad public interest.
Five studies over the past 15 years have concluded the same thing: Hillsborough needs a three-pronged approach — road, mass transit and pedestrian improvements — to improve mobility and make the region more competitive. But that is not going to happen without higher taxes, a fundamental budget shift toward transportation and new, cost-sharing partnerships between the public and private sectors. There is no other way for Hillsborough to start catching up on its $15 billion in long-term roadway needs, much less invest in a more modern transit system.
Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn stands to play a key role in this discussion. He understands the value that a robust mass transit system would bring to downtown, the West Shore business district and the growing medical arts hub at the University of South Florida. He should urge the commission to look broadly at the county's transportation problems and explain the economic edge that bus, rail and other transit options would bring to the region.