No doubt about it: The voters' rejection this month of a transit tax in Hillsborough County is a setback for the Tampa Bay area. But local leaders are responding appropriately. In Hillsborough, officials are learning from the loss and examining what voters did — and did not — say. Pinellas officials are moving ahead to lay the groundwork for a similar transit initiative. Tampa Bay needs improved transportation to grow its economy. The challenge now is to find the right plans that voters will embrace.
Much has already been learned in the failed Hillsborough vote, which would have used a 1-cent sales tax increase to expand roads, add buses and build a light rail system. The county identified the right mix of projects, crafted a fair revenue-sharing agreement between the county and its cities, and developed a workable process for integrating road, rail and waterborne transit across west-central Florida.
While the outcome has been sobering to transit advocates, a Pinellas task force took an important step Monday by calling for a regional approach to financing and managing transit systems in Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties. The 25-member panel did not discuss when to take the issue to voters; that decision may come next month. But it was a show of confidence in light of the Hillsborough defeat to keep a transit tax on the political radar on both sides of Tampa Bay. That is a remarkable development that should go a long way toward solidifying support from the business community, the federal government and state leaders.
The key now is to draw sound conclusions from the electoral defeat. The Hillsborough vote was a romp, but 125,000 people in this economy still volunteered to raise their taxes for roads, buses and rail. That is no minority to ignore. The tax passed in most of Tampa, and it drew strong support in the conservative suburbs of Temple Terrace and New Tampa, where traffic congestion has exploded. The lesson is that even rail can become less about the big picture and more about "what's in it for me?"
Hillsborough officials need to move with sensitivity. A decisive majority said the tax was too much, at the wrong time or for a half-baked idea. Having the routes for light rail on the table beforehand would have helped; so, too, would the costs and a concrete rollout plan.
But a postelection survey showed that even those who voted against the tax still want transit improvements. Twenty-one percent want the issue to come back on another ballot; another 20 percent would prefer starting with a lower tax. Only 31 percent of voters who were against opposed additional steps to improve the transit system.
Those results are encouraging, and it's why Hillsborough's transit agency, HART, is right to continue to explore whether rail is viable between downtown, Tampa International Airport and the University of South Florida. The defeat Nov. 2 creates an opportunity for leaders to paint a clearer picture of how rail will affect the region by driving new development patterns and expanding and diversifying the jobs base.
Voters in Hillsborough said no to this specific plan, but they have not rejected improving transportation. Civic leaders need to stay engaged, explore what worked and what didn't and refine a plan for moving the region's transit system forward. Communities face a choice: take advantage of the down economy, or surrender to it. The Hillsborough loss was a setback, but transportation has become a regional rallying cry in just four years. In that sense, this great civic effort has just begun.