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  1. Opinion

Editorial: Hillsborough can't afford to go half-in on transit plan

Hillsborough County will need to think big, because it makes no sense to sentence Tampa Bay to long-term congestion under the ruse of modernizing the transit system.
Hillsborough County will need to think big, because it makes no sense to sentence Tampa Bay to long-term congestion under the ruse of modernizing the transit system.
Published Jun. 5, 2015

Hillsborough County will unveil a transportation package this week that could go to the voters in 2016. The county needs to think big, because it makes no sense to sentence Tampa Bay to long-term congestion under the ruse of modernizing the transit system. A half-hearted initiative that is not bold enough to address the scope of the problem could be worse than none at all.

County officials on Thursday will brief local elected leaders on the findings of a public campaign that solicited community feedback about Hillsborough's transit needs. This was a well-coordinated and good-faith effort that explored what residents want and what they would be willing to pay. Based on those conversations, the staff is expected to propose a transit package and new funding sources that county commissioners could put on the ballot. Officials have refused to release any details of what they intend to recommend.

This is a tough task, given that voters in Hillsborough and Pinellas soundly rejected similar transit referendums in recent years even as residents bemoaned the state of local transportation and demanded improvements. But those setbacks only underscore the need to aggressively pursue solutions as the region becomes more congested and less competitive with other metropolitan areas that are investing in transit.

Any new revenue must be enough to improve the road network, double the bus system and lay the foundation for regional light rail. While Hillsborough voters rejected a 1-cent sales tax for transit in 2010, the county was right to pursue a sturdy funding base and pledge to spend three-fourths of the proceeds on mass transit. Anything less would virtually kill any hope of even a single rail line from downtown Tampa to the airport — much less an extension to the fast-growing University of South Florida area in north Tampa and across the bay to St. Petersburg.

It's also critical to spend the money in the right ways. A plan that requires taxpayers to spend more for a transit system that only encourages more suburban sprawl would force the county to play catch-up forever. Any reasonable proposal must offer significant relief from road congestion to the suburbs and more transit options in the urban core to win political support. But the new resources must be spent in ways that make the entire transportation system more efficient, not just bigger.

Hillsborough has every reason to want to avoid a replay of the 2010 referendum. But that was a different time. The economic recovery had not yet taken hold. And the transit campaign made many mistakes, including failing to define a route for light rail when rail would have taken 43 percent of the money.

But this community has changed dramatically since then. Thousands of new residents are moving into new apartments and condos downtown. Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik has announced a billion-dollar remake of the Channel District. Tampa is about to redevelop the riverfront on the west bank of the city center. The West Shore business district is struggling to create a walkable community for the new residents working and living there. The USF area is poised for new housing, research and recreational attractions. And after years of lobbying, the state has agreed to provide the footing for rail on a new span of the Howard Frankland Bridge.

Hillsborough must offer a new direction for transportation that is dynamic enough to keep the region growing. There is time to get it right, and to sell it to voters. But half-steps won't do.