The Hillsborough County Commission showed the sort of leadership last week that it has lacked for the entire decade.
Five of seven commissioners voted to move ahead on a plan to ask voters for a 1-cent sales tax for transit improvements. The vote is only one of many to come. But it signaled the majority of the board finally sees transportation as the pivotal link in attracting better jobs, making smarter use of tax dollars and preserving the environment.
The board voted 5-2 to draft a resolution declaring its intent to seek a referendum in November 2010 on a 1-cent transit sales surtax. The money would raise billions of dollars over several decades for light rail, new roads, intersection improvements, buses, sidewalks and trails. The commission is expected to take a final vote on the resolution next month. If approved, the board would craft ballot language for the referendum early next year.
Kevin Beckner, Rose Ferlita, Ken Hagan, Mark Sharpe and Kevin White deserve credit for their support. Previous boards refused three times in this decade to move serious transportation packages. Their dawdling made matters worse, as unchecked growth pushed urban sprawl to the outer limits, quadrupling, to $4 billion, the county's unmet road needs.
The transportation package proposed for a vote next year would give commuters more options, from roads to buses and rail, while encouraging growth to occur in areas already supplied with public services. The idea is to free up the roadways for those who need them, allowing others to step away from their cars and make easier commutes between the University of South Florida, downtown, the airport and the West Shore business district. In suburban areas such as Brandon and Carrollwood, expanded bus service would better connect subdivisions with schools, shops and offices.
It would have been easy in this economy for commissioners to use the recession as an excuse not to lead. Al Higginbotham wondered "what we're going to tell our kids 20 or 30 years from now when they say, 'Where's my money?' " They more likely will be asking where the jobs are, why they are still stewing on Bruce B. Downs and Dale Mabry or why so few local graduates want to return home. A diversified transit plan is the only way Higginbotham's eastern Hillsborough district will retain any semblance of suburban or rural beauty.
It was galling if predictable to see Jim Norman try to nibble the proposal to death Wednesday. He has done virtually nothing good for transit since first being elected in 1992, and he cannot be taken seriously on this issue now. The reality is that raising taxes is always tough. Another reality is that no form of transit — roads or rail — comes for free. Commissioners took the first big step last week, and they need to frame an honest debate in the coming months.