BEFORE VOTING THURSDAY on whether to place a one-cent sales tax for transportation on the November ballot, Hillsborough County commissioners should take a moment to reflect on the events that brought the community to this point. The plan to build a light rail system, expand bus service and add roadways, bike lanes and pedestrian paths in both the cities and suburbs is not a new or even radical idea. Hillsborough has kicked it around for decades. But business and civic leaders finally started building the case for a referendum after seeing how far the county's transportation system had fallen behind and realizing county political leaders were not inclined to act. The tax would raise badly needed money for transportation, but this is really about jobs, wages and remaining economically competitive.
A series of test votes indicates the seven-member commission has the four votes necessary to place the measure on the ballot. Commissioners Jim Norman and Al Higginbotham have thrown bombs instead of proposing alternatives, reflecting the very lack of vision, courage and leadership that prompted the business community to act. Commissioner Rose Ferlita has raised concerns — but she also has helped move the proposal along at critical times. Ferlita's business background should give her the perspective to see that the tax is the county's only way to address its top issue in attracting newer, high-tech industries.
In practical terms, the proposal is a fair and balanced strategy for improving transit options. The county would build light rail from the University of South Florida campus in north Tampa to downtown, and extend the line later between downtown and the airport. That would serve the major urban population and business centers, and it would dovetail nicely with the new high-speed rail line that will link downtown Tampa and Orlando. Most immediately, the county would vastly expand bus service, including express and circulator routes that build a real following by providing fast, convenient service. The county also would build new roads in the suburbs and integrate its transportation network with the surrounding counties.
The measure would create a framework for a strong working relationship between the county and its three cities: Tampa, Plant City and Temple Terrace. This is a real achievement, given how badly Norman and other county officials have soured those relationships by picking needless turf battles. It also could mark a the start of a new era for the entire Tampa Bay region. Leaders in Pinellas and the neighboring counties support Hillsborough's referendum, hoping that approval would open the door to similar initiatives throughout the area. Indeed, the desire for a seamless transportation system along Florida's west-central coast is what galvanized the business community to finally bring a rail plan forward.
After three years of planning and two years of political debate at the Hillsborough commission, it is time to give voters an opportunity to decide the issue. Commissioners should vote to put the transportation referendum on the ballot. Voters deserve adequate time to evaluate the merits of a multifaceted plan and make an informed decision.