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Task force on transit? Been there

Hillsborough commissioners plan to form a task force Wednesday to determine "our short and long-term transportation goals." But really, what's the mystery? Three county efforts in the past seven years chronicled in exhaustive detail the billion dollars in unfunded needs, the case for embracing both roads and mass transit and the urgency to make transit revenues fairer and more stable. Those are in addition to similar findings by city, state and business groups.

What this board must decide is whether to do something or ape its predecessors and use the task force as political cover to stave off hard choices about taxes and managing growth. There is more room for optimism this time. The big push for rail and expanded bus service in recent years has come from the fast-growing suburbs, where residents are tired of long, expensive commutes. Transit was the No. 1 issue in this year's commission elections. Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio also has seized the initiative. Her calls to merge the bus systems in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, and for governments in the area to build a regional rail system, caught the county sleeping. Commissioners must act or else the county could lose its ability to help shape the debate. Even the region's business leaders are years ahead of the elected board in their vision for Hillsborough County.

There is no need for another task force. Blow the dust off earlier recommendations and the county has a wish list for the next 20 years. The job, after all, is not documenting the transit needs but building a political case to fund the improvements. If the board wants advice, it should model the group after the study panel on indigent health care that Commissioner Mark Sharpe headed last year. Sharpe kept the group focused and prevented politics from corrupting his findings. As a result he made the indigent program more accountable and expanded its base of political support. That has always been the weak link for the county on transportation - no follow-through from the board when it came to committing taxes.

Commissioners should think twice before risking their credibility with that song and dance again. Voters want a plan to deal with congestion; they will not be mollified by studying it to death four, five, six or seven times.

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