1. Opinion

Businesses, turn left if you want mass transit, vibrant cities

Published Feb. 8, 2013

When you're a bigwig of industry, perched up high above the hoi polloi, maybe you really do think that the laws of politics, economics and even gravity are suspended, or are at least twisted, to your benefit.

That's the only conclusion I can draw from years of listening to business-oriented groups meeting with the Tampa Bay Times editorial board with the same conflicting agenda: demands for lower taxes and fewer government protections for workers, consumers and the environment while calling for a more educated workforce, modern infrastructure and cities that attract the creative class.

Here's the reality:

Supporting ideologically conservative candidates for political office who want to slash taxes and regulation won't result in a government that invests in top-notch education or mass transit.

Cutting taxes on business and the rich won't magically spur enough growth to boost government revenues. Instead it starves government of the resources needed to invest in infrastructure and human capital.

Eliminating regulations on development, environmental protection and worker rights won't lead to attractive cities or a solid middle class with the disposable income to make communities blossom into cultural and consumer meccas.

Liberal sensibilities of community, intellectual pursuit and investment in people and institutions are what makes great cities.

But that recognition was absent Tuesday when the Tampa Bay Partnership, a group largely made up of area businesses and local governments, came before the editorial board to discuss transportation issues. Its noble vision is to address worsening road congestion with a regional plan that includes bus rapid transit and light rail.

We need this. What a terrible shame that Hillsborough County voters rejected a sales tax increase to fund commuter light rail in 2010. Hopefully Pinellas County voters will approve a similar measure if it gets on the ballot in 2014.

Yet, even as the partnership bemoaned the lack of mass transit, it touted a political agenda that calls for enhanced business competitiveness through low taxes and fewer regulations.

The business community has to open its eyes wider than this. How can it claim to understand that what attracts young professionals and entrepreneurs to cities is working mass transit systems, vibrant cultural institutions, beautiful public spaces and excellent universities without making the connection to the public policies that determine whether those exist?

Here are the attributes of a politician the business community should be supporting: Someone who believes in investing in public works and community amenities and raising the taxes to do so, someone who will push for sustainable community growth and limits on development, and someone who supports living wages for all workers.

This last bit doesn't get talked about much. But in The Rise of the Creative Class Revisited, socioeconomic guru Richard Florida is clear that lasting prosperity for cities will only happen if service workers start getting paid wages that support families. He says it's essential to rebuilding the middle class, enhancing social cohesion and driving economic demand.

What this comes down to is that America's business community needs to change political bedfellows and become liberal.

Chuck Sykes, head of the partnership and CEO of the Tampa call center outsourcing firm Sykes Enterprises, mentioned three cities that he has lived in that Tampa should emulate: Charlotte, N.C., Denver and St. Louis. Their light rail systems are economic drivers, Sykes says, luring members of the creative class to live and work there.

There's something else all three regions have in common — they voted in substantial majorities for President Barack Obama in the last election. Liberals live in and around those cities in large numbers and help drive public policy.

Calls for spending public money for efficient mass transit systems don't come from angry people with tea bags stapled to their hats. Nor from the politicians they elect. Remember how Republican Gov. Rick Scott rejected $2.4 billion in federal high-speed-rail money? Only when the business community starts supporting liberal policies and politicians will its agenda finally start making sense and only then will the country be transformed for the better.