Hillsborough County's mass transit agency, HART, looks to be in desperate shape. In the last year, county voters rejected a light rail plan, Gov. Rick Scott killed a high-speed train between Tampa and Orlando, and HART's governing board fired its chief executive over his management style. The agency faces a multimillion-dollar budget gap next year, so it must increase fares or taxes or cut services at a time when many commuters are paying as much for gas as they are for a car payment. And last month, the HART board halted the virtually completed light rail study, short-circuiting two years of work and leaving the community without a vision for the future. HART's surrender mentality does nothing to help a region struggling in an era of high gas prices.
The great frustration is that these setbacks come during a time that Hillsborough's transit agency has been making real gains. Ridership is up. Bus service is more reliable and comfortable. Commuters had a new, favorable image of HART. And the agency was seen both in Hillsborough and across the bay as a reliable partner, which was critical in moving the debate on light rail forward throughout the region. November was a tough time to ask Hillsborough voters to raise taxes for rail. But the referendum cracked the ice. It brought the region together on transit like never before, united the public and private sectors and moved the discussion on rail from whether to build it to when.
That's why HART's implosion is such a setback. Barely a year ago, the agency had the vision to define transportation as the leading economic challenge the region needed to confront. But HART shows little appetite now to bite off another ambitious mobility plan — not rail and not even improvements with major regional connectivity. Officials said they want to focus now on the county's chronically underfunded bus system and on smaller-scale, express bus transit service.
It's understandable HART would want a timeout after the light rail defeat. But the rail plan passed within the city of Tampa, and polls taken afterward show that even opponents want a new, better plan on the table. Rail was also a forward-looking exercise that had as much to do with improving bus service as it did with rebuilding the urban core and connecting the major employment centers. By dropping a sense of urgency, HART is losing an opportunity to lay the groundwork in the region for when the economy recovers. The momentum of several years would be lost as public officials and business leaders move on to their next civic cause.
HART should keep pushing forward. It should examine the viability of a demonstration rail line between downtown, the West Shore business district and Tampa International Airport. It needs to develop new joint ventures with the business sector to tap private financing. And HART needs to take a leading role in bringing a new transit package to the voters. The region's lack of transit options will be all too apparent next year when the Republican National Convention comes to town. It would be nice with all the media attention for local leaders to be able to assure corporate America that this region recognizes the problem and proposes a solution.