Hillsborough County voters made it abundantly clear in 2018 that they wanted to tax themselves to fix a chronically failing transportation system that threatens their safety, prosperity and quality of life. That’s why it’s so encouraging to see Hillsborough’s political and civic leaders mobilize to carry out the voters’ will in the face of ongoing legal and political pressure by a handful of disgruntled opponents here at home and in Tallahassee. The people who drive these roads every day voted for action in 2018, and if that requires renewing in November what happened two years ago, then get on with it.
The Hillsborough County Commission voted 6-1 Wednesday to consider another referendum in November calling for a one-cent, countywide sales surtax for 30 years to fund transportation improvements. This is the exact same levy that 57 percent of Hillsborough voters supported in the 2018 referendum. But a redo might be necessary given the pending legal challenge to the referendum in the Florida Supreme Court, which opponents claim usurps the commission's authority.
This community has lost precious time since the voters made their intentions made, and the commission’s move Wednesday helps ensure that another referendum could be ready by November, sparing a county with $12 billion or more in unfunded transportation needs from falling further behind. The board will likely move forward at a public hearing April 1.
The substance and tone of Wednesday’s meeting reflected a sea change on transportation that should help mobilize supporters, the business community and voters alike. By a bipartisan majority, the board bluntly acknowledged that Hillsborough’s transportation system was lost without a new revenue source, imperiling the region’s ability to attract new residents, industry and matching federal transportation dollars.
Commissioners also affirmed the need for both mass transit and road improvements, and Chairman Les Miller rightly denounced as “hogwash” the attempt by Commissioner Stacy White (the only no-vote) to play the yellowed card of pitting city and suburban residents against each other. That wasn’t surprising from White, whose lawsuit drove this effort to a standstill. But it’s a red herring that voters soundly rejected in 2018, and one that ignores the ordeal residents in Fish Hawk, Citrus Park and other suburbs face every day in commuting between their homes and destinations across Tampa, from downtown and West Shore to the University of South Florida.
The board has created a good fallback plan should the court invalidate the 2018 referendum or consign it to limbo. The next steps are clear: Hillsborough County should work quickly and methodically to prepare a one-cent tax for the ballot. Civic leaders and the business community should marshal their resources to sell voters (again) on the benefits of a modern, multi-modal transportation system. And voters need to internalize what these improvements would mean -- from safer streets, easier commutes and cheaper and faster transit options to new opportunities across the region for business investment, urban renewal and walkable suburbs.
There is no reason to surrender the ongoing legal battle, but also no reason to expect anything but grief from a Republican-led Legislature and an indifferent high court. If anything, two years of frustration has created only more reason to trust the voters.
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