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COUNTY HEADED ON WRONG TRACK ...

Hillsborough County leaders are getting cold feet at the wrong time. Just months after county voters rejected a sales tax for light rail, HART, the county's mass transit agency, may abandon an almost-completed study into where and how to build a light rail system. Pulling the plug now would be a senseless waste that could set the region back years.

The purpose of the two-year study is to examine the best routes for rail between the North Tampa suburbs, downtown, the West Shore business district and Tampa International Airport. HART blundered by not completing the study beforeNovember's transit referendum. Voters who rejected the plan said they wanted to see the routes and financing before they would agree to raise the sales tax. The criticism was legitimate. But it hardly amounts to a mandate for doing nothing to address the Tampa Bay area's congestion problems.

County commissioner and HART board member Mark Sharpe, a leading supporter for rail in November, now says HART should drop the rail study and focus on improving its core mission, bus service. Sharpe says the study distracts the staff from more pressing business. And he sees nothing on the economic or political horizon that makes rail viable in the foreseeable future. Sharpe makes some practical points. But it hardly taxes HART to run a bus system as it plans for rail. Transit agencies, after all, are in the business of planning strategically.

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