The Hillsborough County transit referendum that has made the November ballot is significantly stronger than two efforts that failed to reach the end zone in the past decade. The one-cent sales surtax would generate enough money to meaningfully improve commuting across the county. And as a citizen-led petition, the measure starts out with a strong base of support — born out of the public's frustration with gridlock and the failure of county commissioners to take the steps necessary to create a more functional and competitive transportation system.
The citizens group All for Transportation reached its target late Wednesday, as the county elections office confirmed it has verified 50,709 signatures of registered voters on a petition to put the referendum on the November ballot. The final tally was nearly 2,000 more than what was needed, based on the number of votes in the county in the last presidential election. In all, more than 77,000 residents signed the petition, or more than the populations of Plant City and Temple Terrace combined.
The effort is impressive in two significant ways. First, the measure would raise the county sales to 8 cents on the dollar from 7, going further than an ill-fated effort in 2016 that called for a half-penny increase. The tax would generate about $300 million a year, or $9 billion over its 30-year life, taking care of most of the $13 billion backlog in Hillsborough's transportation needs. It sets aside 45 percent for HART, the county's mass transit agency, to improve bus and other public transit services, leaving the rest to the county and its three cities for their priorities. The plan reserves hefty amounts for road, bridge and intersection projects, for relieving congestion at rush-hour bottlenecks and for making the streets safer for pedestrians and bicyclists. In all, it's a well-rounded approach that respects the different needs of urban and suburban communities, all while creating stronger connections across all modes of transit.
Second, the petition process reflects the depth of the public's desire for action. Residents are no longer content waiting for the seven-member county commission to put a referendum on the ballot. Tens of thousands of voters have put it there themselves. This is yet another example of the private sector leading on the most serious public issue facing Tampa Bay. Interestingly, some of the heaviest support for the petition arose in conservative east Hillsborough, a clear backlash to the refusal by commissioners to seriously tackle the impacts of sprawl.
The plan is strong and the political dynamics are different than in the past, but any campaign for a tax increase will be an uphill fight. Voters should find confidence in the provisions for an oversight committee and in plans for keeping these projects on course and competitive for outside funding. Still, the usual critics who oppose any and every tax increase on the delusion that public services come free will be fighting the referendum. The business community, which supported the petition-gathering process, should see this effort as a landmark opportunity to make a difference. Supporters should be clear in explaining how this plan would improve every day life by creating safer and more efficient and affordable transit options. All for Transportation already has succeeded by putting this serious issue in voters' hands and by offering sensible solutions for a better tomorrow. Now it will take more money and a sustained, communitywide effort to convince enough voters to make this badly needed investment in the future.