Some hope for Hillsborough County’s transportation challenges | Editorial
The County Commission is moving to give voters another crack at this defining priority.
Hillsborough County has billions in unfunded transportation needs. Shown here is the 2018 widening of State Road 60 in Brandon.
Hillsborough County has billions in unfunded transportation needs. Shown here is the 2018 widening of State Road 60 in Brandon. [ "LUIS SANTANA | TIMES" | Tampa Bay Times ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published Mar. 29, 2022

Hillsborough County moved a step closer last week to a brighter transportation future. County commissioners approved the outline of a referendum in November that would improve roads, bridges and mass transit for decades to come. Hillsborough voters have already shown their support for a balanced, forward-looking approach, and this plan follows suit.

After two years of discussions and public town halls, commissioners wisely chose to learn from experience. The board voted 6-1 to direct the county attorney’s office to draft an ordinance that calls for a one-percent sales surtax for 30 years, with 45 percent of the money going to the county’s mass transit agency, Hillsborough Area Regional Transit, and 54.5 percent to the county and its three cities, based on their populations. The remaining half percent would go to the local planning organization.

HART would have received that same percentage under a similar transportation initiative that Hillsborough voters approved in 2018. But the Florida Supreme Court invalidated the tax last year, after a legal challenge by Hillsborough County Commissioner Stacy White. The court ruled the tax was unconstitutional because the referendum — and not elected commissioners — determined the spending formula.

The commission’s strong show of support last week was vital for several reasons. First, it remedied the legal defect of the 2018 referendum without abandoning the public’s demonstrated desire to invest meaningfully in mass transit. The voters’ support for HART in 2018 cut across the cities and unincorporated areas, reflecting a new attitude that bus and other mass transit service has a robust role across the growing region. Mass transit is just as important in managing congestion in the city center as it is in helping to preserve agricultural and ecologically-sensitive land from the ruinous effects of sprawl. Voters saw the 2018 referendum as a way to not only improve mobility, but to protect urban, suburban and rural environments alike.

Allowing HART to keep 45 percent of the money would give the chronically-underfunded bus system the major boost and steady flow of funding it needs to function in the modern era. It takes time for new routes and services to build a customer base. The allocation would help HART improve its reliability, bolster investment along the transit corridors and serve as a conduit for urban infill development. Ratcheting the allocation back a percentage point or two would not have brought transit-skeptics on board, or contributed to consistent messaging about transit’s importance in Tampa Bay. That’s even more true today with gas at $4 a gallon.

Commissioners still need to consider the ordinance again next month, and advocates need to repeat their past success in getting enough voters to support the tax increase during the election in November. The court case over the 2018 referendum also remains unresolved. On Friday, Hillsborough Circuit Court Judge Rex Barbas rejected a proposal to establish a process for accepting public applications for refunds from the $562 million already collected, citing “no clear legal basis” for the move.

The commission rightly is focused on the future, not the past. The Florida Legislature also created a framework this year to resolve the 2018 court case, a helpful step given that Barbas has waited too long for judicial guidance that either doesn’t exist or is not forthcoming. It’s time for all sides to move beyond 2018. Hillsborough’s transportation needs have only grown since then. Let the voters speak again on this top priority.

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Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.