The budget that Hillsborough County's mass transit agency has proposed for the coming years comes nowhere close to what's needed for the fourth-largest county in the fourth-largest state. It is a plan for moving backward that makes it harder for people to hold down jobs and one that tells the business community that real-life considerations like the cost and reliability of transit are beyond the concern of local government leaders. This is the wrong response to the struggling economy and a wrong reading of what residents want.
To its credit, the transit agency, HART, scrubbed expenses from the 2012 and 2013 budgets, brought in new revenue and worked to soften the impacts of service cuts. The staff did a good job with what it had, and it was responsible in asking HART's governing board to raise the tax rate slightly next year, to its pre-2007 level. That avoids even more drastic cuts in service. The board tentatively agreed to the plan but will set a final tax rate next month.
Still, these budgets are not even serious starting points. It was bad enough the agency ran away from light rail in the wake of last year's failed referendum on a sales surtax for transit. But at least the agency promised at the time to refocus on its core mission — delivering quality bus service. Now that isn't happening. While HART vowed to focus on the basics, it has cut bus service repeatedly since the failed vote in November. And spending next year would drop to $61 million, from $63 million, then return to its current level in 2013.
But HART's problems are hardly captured in a one-year snapshot of its sorry financial shape. It has achieved record ridership, thanks in part to the recession, at the same time that antitax politicians in the county have kept the agency chronically underfunded. HART will put 179 buses on the roads next year; the Hillsborough school district has eight times that number. The 40 new buses entering the fleet would have made hardly a dent in demand even if they were not going largely to replace retiring vehicles. HART has burned through a third of its cash reserves in the last three years, and it is dangerously close to its minimum operating cushion.
These are major, systemic problems. County Commissioner Mark Sharpe, who serves on the board, gets it; he changed his mind and supported a tax increase for HART, which would cost the average homeowner about 41 cents a year. But his colleague, Commissioner Sandy Murman, a fellow Republican, is still playing politics. Murman said she won't support an increase "even if it's a penny."
Even if it's a penny? This is the mind-set Hillsborough needs to change if it hopes to address transportation and job development in a meaningful way.