Hillsborough County voters will decide Nov. 2 whether to increase the sales tax by 1 cent to pay for a host of transportation improvements, from roads and buses to a new light rail system. This referendum is the most far-reaching decision the county has faced for decades. Hillsborough would have the highest tax rate in Florida but also the most modern transportation system, which could transform the area economy. The stakes could not be higher. But if supporters hope to persuade voters to embrace this compelling vision, they need to get it right.
The agency in charge of mass transit expansion under the plan, Hillsborough Area Regional Transit, announced it does not plan to decide on the alignments of the first legs of the rail line until after voters have gone to the polls. HART had expected to decide by June. Those studies are ongoing. Now HART says it needs more time to analyze the routes and gauge public reaction. The agency said it could take until late November to choose the alignments.
HART's defenders were quick to point out that they would rather get the alignments right than get them in on time. That avoids the issue: The agency has a responsibility to do both. The concept of running rail between downtown and the University of South Florida in north Tampa and between downtown and Tampa International Airport has been studied for more than a decade. There are only a handful of practical routes to connect all three. Much of the homework has been done. And officials had promised throughout the tedious and difficult process of getting the referendum to the ballot that residents would know in advance exactly what they were voting for — or against.
Rail, admittedly, is only one component of a multimodal plan to improve transportation. For the first several years, at least, the most dramatic changes would be better roads in the unincorporated areas and vastly improved bus service. Most of the spending would be for roads and buses. But the only new piece is rail, and it would be the single largest ticket item. The component that's the hardest sell already should not be the one with the biggest question marks.
Having no alignment does more than give ammunition to rail opponents. It blemishes what has otherwise been an orderly and deliberative political process of putting the referendum on the ballot. Over the past three years, county officials have mapped out the area's transportation needs and a plan for meeting them. The county and its cities have agreed on how to finance and manage the projects, and how to share the tax money. Hillsborough also has a plan to integrate its new roads and rail with similar projects in the future in counties across the Tampa Bay area.
HART opened the door Wednesday to speeding up the decision on the alignments. CEO David Armijo said the remaining questions might be resolved by October. The voters deserve as much information as possible before deciding this issue. The referendum is not a vote only on the penny. It is a question of whether the public has faith that the government can deliver on its promises. The details are important because voters must believe that the government can get them right. Hillsborough has worked hard to bring this worthy concept to a vote. But it is time to nail down the plan.