Great civic projects benefit communities for generations. Look at Tampa International Airport and the University of South Florida. Hillsborough County voters have the opportunity Tuesday to make the next great leap by approving the 1-cent sales tax referendum for transportation. The measure would give Hillsborough the transportation system it needs to grow, compete in the modern economy and improve the quality of life that has brought millions here.
Voters can find details of the transit package — how it works, where it goes — on the website movinghillsboroughforward.org. But in short, the tax would pay to ease congestion on the most traffic-choked roads, more than double the county's bus fleet and build a light-rail system. Safe and reliable buses would whisk students, workers and retirees to all corners of the county. Mass transit would bring residents from the suburbs to downtown Tampa, USF, the West Shore business district and the airport. Workers could avoid the expense of a car and still get to work on time. And commuters who do drive could see less congestion with thousands of automobiles taken off the roads.
In the near term, the investment would create tens of thousands of construction-related jobs. Long term, it would make the county more attractive to new employers who have long been dissuaded from relocating here because of the transportation mess. It also would make the county more competitive globally and more attractive to young and home-grown talent.
The timing is difficult in a down economy, but waiting would be worse. The construction collapse allows taxpayers to lock in lower costs for labor and materials. Tampa Bay, where the unemployment rate is higher than both the state and national average, would gain desperately needed jobs. And the county would lay a foundation for a modern transit system just as USF moves more boldly into the biosciences industry, the airport seeks more international flights and Tampa's seaport prepares to handle increased trade from the Panama Canal expansion.
The outside world sees the Tampa Bay region as a dynamic community, too. Federal money is primarily paying for a separately funded high-speed rail line connecting Tampa to Orlando that may ultimately extend to Miami. The Republican Party selected Tampa for its 2012 national convention. And Tampa is on a short list of U.S. cities bidding on soccer's 2022 World Cup. The show of confidence reflects the region's potential to become a top-tier metropolitan area.
Hillsborough will need a functional transportation system to take these great steps and maintain a quality of life for residents and visitors. Businesses are looking for communities with more to offer — and so are the children in our own homes and schools. Voters should take the time to dig deep into the ballot and cast a vote for the referendum. It is a vote for the region's future.