The message is sinking in: Hillsborough County's proposed transit tax would do as much for suburban residents as those who live in the cities. A St. Petersburg Times/Bay News 9 poll released this month shows that a slight majority of probable voters — 51 percent — support the proposal. But the bigger story is that a far higher percentage — 61 percent — support the tax in the southern suburbs of Sun City Center and Apollo Beach. Residents want easier and cheaper ways to reach downtown, the hospitals, Tampa International Airport, MacDill Air Force Base, the University of South Florida and other major destinations. That will happen if voters approve the tax.
Critics have misrepresented the proposal by calling it a "rail tax" that would benefit only city residents. But the truth is getting through. Most of the money would go for roads and improvements to the bus system. And enhancements to roads and bus service would take effect first. Rail would come later, but when it did it would connect the USF area, Brandon, downtown, the West Shore business district, the airport and the northwest county suburbs. And those rail lines would be served by buses, giving rail a countywide reach.
Voters should not fall for the attempt to pit urban and suburban residents against each other. The transit plan's three-pronged approach — roads, buses and rail — offers something for everyone. Buses and rail would free up congestion on the roads and lessen the need for taxpayers to condemn more private property for highways. Improving roads throughout the county makes the region more economically competitive. Putting more money into mass transit enables the county to draw down more federal aid for transportation. Mass transit gives people who cannot or do not want to drive the ability to get where they want. And a more balanced transportation system grows the urban core while protecting suburban lifestyles.
There are broader benefits, too. Mass transit could drive redevelopment of older, urban areas. It could free up some of the significant amount of income that low-wage earners spend maintaining a car. Employers would benefit from a reliable transportation system that gets their employees to work. And about one-fifth of the 1 cent sales tax would be paid by nonresidents, spreading the burden to those who use the transit system. Most importantly, the county would be creating an essential revenue stream. Hillsborough has tens of billions of dollars in unfunded transit needs and no significant pot of money to tap until 2026. The county will need a transit tax sooner or later, anyway. Why fall further behind or continue to lose out in the competition for federal dollars?
Voters have time before Nov. 2 to study the benefits for themselves. A group of political and business leaders supporting the referendum has broken down the transportation projects by neighborhood. Check out the group's website at www.movinghillsborough forward.org; click "The Plan" and then "What's in it for me?"
The short answer: Plenty for everybody.