1. Opinion

The pandemic has not solved Tampa Bay’s transportation crisis | Column

Working from home is not long-term solution, writes Hillsborough County Commissioner Les Miller

The suggestion that the coronavirus pandemic has solved Hillsborough County’s transportation crisis is as deceitful as President Donald Trump’s assurances the virus is no worse than the flu.

JAMES BORCHUCK | Times Hillsborough County Commissioner Les Miller, right, addresses the audience after the Board of County Commissioners Investiture Ceremony Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2018 in downtown Tampa. To Millers left is newly elected commissioner Mariella Smith. [ JAMES BORCHUCK | Times ]

Yet that is the type of deception my colleague on the Hillsborough County Commission, Stacy White, is using to suggest our transportation problems could magically disappear. It’s inaccurate, and it’s harmful to our county’s future to promote such a myth.

In a the column in the Friday e-edition of the Tampa Bay Times, White suggests the pandemic has produced the answer to Hillsborough’s chronic traffic issues: Encourage everyone to keep working from home even after the coronavirus crisis has subsided, he wrote, and "we might find that we could save many billions of taxpayer dollars with this simple solution…''

That’s no solution. That’s a fantasy.

As White knows, our traffic problems have not gone away. As the Times reported last week, the school district faces the prospect of overcrowded schools and double sessions in south Hillsborough. It has a half-dozen potential sites for new schools, but the roads are too clogged to get the kids to those sites. More people may be working from home now, but that hasn’t stopped all of the new housing development in south Hillsborough that requires new schools, better roads and more sidewalks.

Second, White’s suggestion that everyone keep working from home so we don’t have to invest in better roads and transit smacks of the structural racism Florida and the nation are finally confronting. National research shows a much larger portion of white residents are able to work from home than Black or Hispanic residents.

Third, there is an elitist attitude in arguing government should continue encouraging businesses to have their employees work from home after the pandemic. Bloomberg reports more than 70% of households earning more than $100,000 said they were able to telecommute. But only 27% of households with annual incomes under $75,000 said someone was able to work from home. The workers who keep our hotels running, the cooks feeding us in our restaurants and the construction workers building those new houses can’t work from home. They need adequate roads and viable transit options to get to work, and that requires a public commitment to invest in our infrastructure.

Here’s what White neglected to mention while advocating Hillsborough’s offices should be permanently empty: He is one of the reasons our traffic problems aren’t getting better today. He made a choice to file one of the lawsuits seeking to overturn the will of the voters who in 2018 overwhelmingly approved All for Transportation, a one-cent sales tax to improve our roads and transit. Then he appealed a lower court ruling that upheld the tax to the Florida Supreme Court. More than $330 million in sales tax money that could be spent now to create jobs and start addressing our transportation issues is sitting in the bank while we wait for the court to rule.

White writes he felt like he "stepped into a time machine'' when the pandemic hit, as many employees started working from home and traffic declined. He is indeed engaging in backward thinking when he imagines solving our transportation problems by encouraging everyone to work from home forever.

Hillsborough County must invest in the future to benefit everyone. We should not pine for the past, perpetuate fantasies and promote brainstorms that disproportionately harm minority residents and low-income families.

Les Miller, a Democrat, chairs the Hillsborough County Commission and has served on the commission since 2010.