The Tampa Bay area desperately needs a modern transportation system, and the political and business leaders taking the first step in Hillsborough County are proposing a thoughtful plan to increase the sales tax to pay for better roads, more buses and a new light rail system. But offering a compelling vision is one thing and selling it to voters is another — particularly in this economy. Supporters of the transportation package need to sharpen their message before voters decide its fate in November.
The plan would improve transportation by building roads throughout Hillsborough, doubling the size of the bus system and creating a light rail network that eventually would connect the northern suburbs around the University of South Florida with Brandon, downtown, south Tampa, the West Shore business district and Tampa International Airport. Commuters would have more and better options, and supporters envision the light rail as a magnet for jobs as development occurs along the rail corridors.
The vision is enticing but a bit fuzzy. Voters need more clarity on how the plan would improve their lives and the local economy. This is a tough time to persuade voters to look beyond their individual, immediate financial concerns for an investment with bigger dividends in the future. The 1 cent increase would put Hillsborough's sales tax rate at 8 percent, the highest of any county in Florida. Voters need to see more clearly what's in it for them. And they need to understand that without a new sales tax, the county has no real money for major transportation projects before 2026.
Voters also need a clearer idea of where the rail lines would go. Hillsborough officials say voters will not know the alignments for the rail routes before going to the polls. Alignments matter, because they will determine how much redevelopment occurs along the rail line. One route for the line between downtown and north Hillsborough would run through east Tampa, a blighted area ripe for redevelopment. But another option puts the line along I-275, where development potential is much more limited.
The campaign must also show in more practical terms how the transit package could grow the economy. Part of that is demonstrating a commitment to use rail to revitalize the central city and the older suburbs. But voters need a mental image, not just projections about a growing tax base. What will the jobs picture look like a decade from now? How will the transit package protect agriculture and rural areas from sprawl? When would the thousands of people who commute each day across county lines be connected with a regional system? And how much would a functional mass transit system save motorists on gas and insurance that they could pour back into other sectors of the economy?
Supporters have spent a lot of time comparing Hillsborough with similar-sized communities that already have rail systems. The contrasts confirm how far behind its peers this region is, but this decision will not boil down to a comparison between Tampa and Charlotte or Phoenix. It will hinge on voter attitudes about taxes, congestion, transit's role in the economy and the smartest use of transportation dollars. Public faith in local government is also at issue. Persuading voters to place that faith and their money in a sweeping transportation package requires as much clarity as possible.