The Academy Award for Best Visual Effects goes to Hillsborough County's elected leaders, who found another way last week to disguise inaction on transportation as progress. County commissioners voted to move ahead with a board policy setting aside one-third of future revenues from growth to pay for transportation improvements. It is a meaningless, election-year gimmick that does nothing for transportation but wipe this No. 1 problem from the board's radar screen for the foreseeable future.
Commissioners voted 6-1 to advance the proposal, which would establish, as board policy, the county's intent to set aside one-third of future growth in property and sales tax revenues to transportation. In the wake of two failed transit tax initiatives in recent years, commissioners said it was time to do something, and supporters hailed the move as both progressive and fiscally conservative.
In fact, it is neither. The county is not creating a new revenue stream for transportation; it's merely raiding money already there. While declaring this as a board policy is better than the original idea from the sponsor, Commissioner Sandy Murman, to enshrine the move as a county ordinance, following the policy is voluntary. The commission can violate it any time — for debt, for an emergency, for police and fire expenses. Commissioners opted for the weasel language after the county's financial advisers warned it would be irresponsible to restrict future budgets for any specific purpose. There is always a risk the economy could sour, and taking money off the table could leave the county exposed. Remember the recession? And raiding funds could weaken the county's credit rating, raising the costs for borrowing.
The measure is expected to generate about $823 million over 10 years. But sweeping that money from the budget creates holes in other places. Over that same time, the county will need to find $245 million to cover the costs of inflation and expanded services for the 25,000 residents expected to move in every year. And that budget hole doesn't include the costs of building 25 new fire stations and a host of other facilities the county will need to accommodate growth.
While $800 million may sound like a lot, it won't make much of a dent in the county's $12 billion backlog in transportation needs. Two-thirds of that money could be spent now on maintenance and four marginal road projects in the suburbs. With this policy, the county would dole out the money on an annual basis, which means it would not go for major capital investments in rail or buses, but rather be frittered away on pet road projects in commissioners' individual districts.
Murman said the move will "test our fiscal priorities" going forward. In reality, nothing has changed. The commission has had the authority all along to dedicate more money every year to transportation. How having a gentlemen's agreement changes the equation is anybody's guess.
The only thing that's changed is the board's undue sense of accomplishment. Members on Wednesday all but dusted off their hands in praising this empty step forward. After years of examining how to improve connectivity throughout Tampa Bay, this plan does nothing to link job centers or the region, to bring in state or federal transit dollars or to make the area more competitive nationally.
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If anything, by assuming a period of robust and sustained growth, and a continuation of artificially cheap credit, this plan smacks of the vision previous commissions championed in the 1990s.
The board will hold a hearing on the plan Sept. 8. There is still time for his colleagues to join Commissioner Les Miller, the lone no vote Wednesday, to hold out for a transportation initiative that might actually work.