Hillsborough County has a choice to make: It can continue to cut service and pretend that mass transit plays no role in the region's future. Or it can invest in the very sort of transportation system that communities across the country are building to make themselves more competitive. The voters' rejection of a broad transportation plan two years ago clearly was a setback. But the county should learn from the loss, not wallow in it.
The 2010 referendum on the transit tax was far from perfect. County commissioners dragged their feet in putting a plan on the table; the rail component had no route; and cost estimates were all over the map. Still, the measure would have created a broader and more stable funding base for a broad range of options — from new rail and bus service to more and better roads — and it would have created opportunities to rebuild older parts of the city.
The consequences of having no new money was underscored again this month when Hillsborough's transit agency, HART, offered some straight talk about the implications of continuing to operate on a shoestring budget. Despite scrubbing expenses to deal with declining property tax revenues, HART has been forced to cut service and spend its cash reserves to keep skeletal service on the roads. HART operates 180 buses; the Hillsborough school fleet is eight times that size. Yet the county still manages to break ridership records. Its traffic this year is up 6 percent and on track to break last year's record of nearly 14 million passengers.
The county's property revenue base provides HART about $30 million annually, which is not enough to maintain adequate bus service, much less build a modern public transit system. As communities across the country have shown, only a broader mix of revenue — from sales and property taxes to grants and fare collections — can sustain these systems and turn public transit into an economic driver for private investment. Having the ability to do without a car in the Tampa Bay area can save a household one-fourth of its earnings. Public transit is also key to breathing new life into Tampa's urban neighborhoods, the university area and the West Shore business district. County leaders need to work with the city on reviving a transit plan; the status quo will not enable this region to compete.