The transportation plan that goes before Hillsborough County voters Tuesday may be about roads, buses and light rail, but it also represents a new way of thinking. Local transportation planners would collaborate like never before. The public — not the politicians — would have a much bigger say in how the region spends billions of dollars in tax money. And area leaders would be required to look ahead. The plan does as much to instill a new level of accountability in local government as it does to create a modern transit system.
The public's attention in the runup to Tuesday's vote has focused on the opportunities that a modern transportation system would bring. But the 1-cent sales tax proposal also would create a framework for dealing with transportation across the entire region. Hillsborough would have a dedicated source of money to meet its most pressing transit needs. An agreement between the county and its three cities would guide how these separate jurisdictions cooperate over the long term. And the plan would eventually link Hillsborough's transit system with networks in Pinellas and other adjoining counties.
The public is being asked to raise taxes with protections to ensure that the money will be spent responsibly. Toward that end, the cities and county spent months building backstops into the plan. The money will be deposited into dedicated trust funds and used only for transit projects that have been vetted and ranked. Local agencies will prepare annual audits, and a citizens oversight committee will meet regularly to review expenditures. The plan spells out how much is going for roads and mass transit. Legal restrictions will make it difficult for politicians to monkey with which projects get funded. And the county's transit agency is required to "ensure connectivity to adjacent counties," ensuring that the region thinks through the process of linking its major cities and destinations.
The plan brings more scrutiny to transportation spending than to any other operation of county government. It lays a foundation for governments throughout the region to cooperate on a host of issues, from managing growth to job development efforts. Adding a new level of public oversight to the contracting process will reduce the chance for fraud and raise the public's expectation of transparency in government.
Local officials did a good job crafting a plan that both improves transit in the region and protects taxpayers. That regard for accountability should give voters the confidence to approve the referendum.