The new transportation plan that Hillsborough County commissioners have approved is fine as far as it goes. There is nothing wrong with setting aside more money over the next decade to repair roads and redo dangerous intersections. But make no mistake: This is a road plan, not a transit plan, and the biggest transportation challenges remain unaddressed.
The commissioners voted unanimously last week to dedicate $600 million toward roads and bridges over the next decade. Instead of raising taxes, commissioners vowed to commit $35 million more of the budget next year for transportation, and to increase that amount annually by $5 million for the next decade. If commissioners meet the target, the county would spend an additional $600 million over 10 years for transportation, with maintenance and safety projects receiving priority funding.
But this has to be only a modest start to address a much larger transportation issue. The county's backlog of unfunded transportation needs is already $10 billion to $12 billion, up to 20 times what this move would raise, and that price tag will only increase over the coming decade. This is not even found money. The commissioners simply agreed to set aside this money from existing streams of revenue and to pool a variety of sources — from sales and fuel taxes to grants — to meet the targeted amount.
The commission doesn't need a policy to commit this money, and commissioners can vote to end this measure any time. What's more, the county can relax the target for a multitude of reasons, from a budget crisis to an emergency. And this is for all practical purposes a road plan; the measure does not guarantee the cities or the bus system any long-term revenue. Instead, the county would award the money once a year, meaning it could not be bonded for the startup costs of improving mass transit or regional connectivity.
This approach only reinforces Hillsborough's reliance on roads. And it carves the cities and HART, the county's mass transit agency, out of the decisionmaking process, which inflames the urban-rural divide over transportation policy. This is exactly the wrong lesson from two failed efforts in the past six years to modernize the county's transportation system.
The commissioners could have taken this action without sending the message to transit advocates, the mayors, the business community and others that it still needs to agree on a long-term vision for transportation. Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn has vowed to continue seeking state approval for cities — and not only counties — to hold voter referendums on raising taxes for transportation improvements. Transit activists frustrated by the failed transit efforts in 2010 and this year are looking to bring the matter back through a citizens' petition. And the commission's decision has reignited interest in creating an elected county mayor.
Commissioners may have made a modest down payment on road maintenance, but they have not begun to address the larger state of the transportation network. This is a conversation that needs to happen before the cities, the business community and the next generation start to look at cutting the commission from this debate altogether.