Hillsborough County voters have more at stake in the Nov. 2 transit referendum than a better way to get from Point A to Point B. Increasing the sales tax by 1 cent for roads, buses and a new light-rail system would create better and cheaper commuting options. But the plan would also be a jobs creator, enabling the region to recover more quickly from the recession and better compete against other communities.
The most immediate impact would be felt in construction — one of the significant employers in the county and the hardest hit by the recession. Hillsborough has shovel-ready plans to build and widen roads. The bus and rail projects would require transit stations and maintenance yards. And these construction dollars trickle down, as builders require everything from manufactured products to legal, engineering and other professional services.
A study commissioned by Hillsborough Area Regional Transit, the lead agency behind the referendum, estimates that the construction projects alone would create 25,000 jobs and generate more than $2 billion in personal income between 2011, when the tax would take effect, and 2035. And the money that flows back from creating a more efficient transit system could boost those figures to 34,000 jobs and $3.5 billion in new spending.
But the real economic bang comes as the transportation projects reshape the county's image and ability to do business. More and more younger workers are looking for cities where mass transit enables them to reach their jobs, shops and entertainment destinations. Not needing a car puts cash in their pockets, giving employers the benefit of a wage subsidy. Bus and rail projects could enable the University of South Florida to form a world-class hub in north Tampa for academic research and the biotech industry. Mass transit also is key to the region's ability to compete for soccer's 2022 World Cup and other major events, and to the success of new efforts at Tampa International Airport to attract more overseas flights.
The transit plan would bolster the investment taxpayers already have in these public institutions. And it would put Hillsborough on a better course to meet its needs. The county's population is expected to grow and get older in the coming decades. At the same time, Hillsborough is expected to shed industrial jobs and add employment in the services and health care fields. Mass transit is a way to keep pace, a vehicle for keeping seniors mobile and a tool for sustaining jobs in these growing industries.
Every community in the country is looking for a jobs plan, and nowhere is one needed more than in the Tampa Bay area. The region's unemployment rate (at 12.4 percent) is higher than the statewide average, which itself is higher than the national average. A yes vote on the Hillsborough referendum tells the nation this region is open for business and investing in its future. That commitment is what employers are looking for to expand and grow their businesses.