The disappointing defeat of Hillsborough County's transit referendum Tuesday should be only a temporary setback. The plan remains a solid framework for building a modern transportation system throughout the region. Raising taxes is a tough sell in this difficult economy, and the electorate's anti-government mood did not help. So Hillsborough officials need to build on what worked and schedule another referendum soon, and Pinellas needs to keep moving forward with its transit plans.
Hillsborough's experience is typical: Communities often reject rail the first time it appears on the ballot. Most important is that Hillsborough broke the ice and that the region needs to remain focused on building a modern rail system. Political and business leaders got behind the Hillsborough effort after talking about rail for a quarter-century. And the region now recognizes that Tampa Bay's economy and ability to compete hinges on a quality transportation system.
Bringing the referendum back will not involve reinventing the wheel. While the county would need to take another step to place the issue on a future ballot — this referendum's wording was pegged to 2010 — Hillsborough and its three cities can simply replicate the cost-sharing plan. The local governments already have a solid governance plan for ranking projects and overseeing spending. Replace "2010" with "2012" and a new election is good to go.
While Pinellas continues work on its transit plans, Hillsborough could use the coming months to answer some of the questions that should have been resolved before Tuesday's vote. What route would the light rail lines take between downtown, the airport and the University of South Florida? How much would the system really cost, and when would rail extend to the suburbs? The county's transit agency could decide on the rail alignments this month, and engineering studies are lined up for the foreseeable future. So Tuesday's rejection at the polls should not stop the momentum.
Despite the defeat, the effort was historic for its ambition and scope. Never before had so many diverse groups — Republicans and Democrats, business groups and labor unions, environmentalists and builders — come together to support the same civic initiative. Organizers will need to keep this broad coalition together and expand the base of support. USF and the University of Tampa stood to benefit greatly from the mass transit package, but administrators and students from both schools were virtual no-shows in the campaign. The effort also drew no vocal endorsement from big-name conservatives in the county's eastern and southern suburbs.
A winning campaign will require donors and organizers to sharpen their message and a strong commitment from Tampa's next mayor. Community leaders should take Tuesday's defeat as a challenge to present a better proposal. The region lost some valuable time to invest in its economy, but the goal is still the right one.