Hillsborough County made the right decision Monday to put a more robust transit plan back on the table for a full-throated public discussion. The half-penny sales tax proposal that officials floated in June would not have generated enough money to fundamentally change the county's clogged highways and cash-strapped bus system, much less lay the groundwork for a regional rail system. By reconsidering raising the sales tax by a full penny as a new round of public meetings begins, the county signals it is serious about building a modern transportation system.
County staff and a panel of locally elected leaders who have been working on a transportation plan for the last year had coalesced around a half-penny proposal as the most politically pragmatic option to put on the 2016 ballot. After voters rejected a full penny for transit in both Hillsborough and Pinellas in recent years, the half-penny plan was viewed as a safer alternative that could perhaps address the worst congestion and somehow pave the way for another investment in mass transit at some point in the future.
But that approach has fallen flat among transit advocates and others who want to focus less on simply building wider roads. With no clear constituency behind the half-penny, the county staff is right to reopen the discussion about a penny sales tax that could bring meaningful change. Make no mistake: Any transit tax faces an uphill battle, and a 1-cent sales tax would be a tough sell. But broadening the discussion now gives Hillsborough a better opportunity to develop a significant transit plan that would make a real impact. There is plenty of time to build public support before the 2016 election.
This is not just about money. Hillsborough proposed a solid revenue stream from a 1-cent sales tax that voters rejected in 2010, but the work plan was weak or nonexistent. With a full penny, which would raise about $240 million a year, the county could pay for wider roads and new intersections, vastly expand bus service and build the first leg of a rail system from downtown Tampa to Tampa International Airport. A full penny sales tax is the only way to begin addressing the $8 billion backlog in transit needs and to provide better options for moving people and goods across the west coast of Florida.
County staff and consultants are right to shift course as a new round of 54 public meetings gets under way. The sessions over the next two months give the county an opportunity to explain how a 1-cent sales tax could be much more effective. Beyond expanding the work plan, a full penny would give Hillsborough, the county's three cities and the bus agency HART the ability to blend new roads, pedestrian facilities and mass transit projects into a more seamless transportation grid. A full penny also would allow more and bigger projects to be financed in the first decade of a 30-year tax, giving voters quicker results and a better appreciation for the long-term potential of an ambitious effort.
The county does not have to decide on the amount of a transit tax before the end of the year. What's important now is to fully explain what a 1-cent sales tax would buy and to present a work plan that clearly details which new roads and mass transit projects would be built and when they would be completed. The failure of the half-penny proposal to generate much interest is an indication that residents understand the seriousness of the transportation problem and are looking for the county to offer serious and lasting solutions. If the private sector is expected to contribute time and money to a referendum campaign, it needs to see that any transit plan is meaningful enough to warrant the investment. By reconsidering the possibility of a 1-cent sales tax, Hillsborough officials have put substance before politics. Now they need to back it up with a muscular work plan that would significantly improve the region's transportation system — and appeal to voters willing to invest in the future.