A group of elected officials in Hillsborough County achieved the impossible last week by taking even more steam out of the plodding effort to modernize the area's transportation system. The reaction by members of the Policy Leadership Group to the budding proposal — which would pave the way for a 1-cent sales tax increase in Hillsborough to pay for new rail, buses and roads — showed no leadership and no recognition of the competitive disadvantage this region will face if it doesn't create a viable mass transit system.
The group — composed of the seven county commissioners, Hillsborough's three mayors and the chairman of HART, the county mass transit agency — got its first look at a multibillion dollar list of unfunded road and transit projects. But rather than transform the wish list into a thoughtful targeted proposal, the group sent the entire wish list out for a monthslong listening tour. Members also agreed to — what else? — hire a consultant to build public support for a plan that is not really a plan that they insisted they are not trying to sell.
Has anyone learned from the transit referendum Hillsborough voters rejected in 2010? Voters killed that measure because they were unclear about what the tax would pay for, where rail would go, when the improvements would begin and how all the new parts would come together as part of a seamless network. Now the county is attempting a comeback by re-creating the confusion from the first time around.
Hillsborough will spend the next two months soliciting feedback from the public, but what are residents supposed to react to? The exercise will not build "ownership" for the plan, as the county's buzzword predicts, because there is no clear plan and no interest from the leadership group in setting clear priorities. While Pinellas has the well-defined Greenlight transit plan to put before voters in November, Hillsborough is spinning its wheels and may not be ready even for 2016.
Hillsborough Commissioner Victor Crist wants to sit still for years. Others want voters to effectively preordain any measure that would go to the ballot. And even the most ardent supporters have a strategy that boils down to watching Pinellas. If Greenlight fails, Hillsborough will lose as well because a sense of urgency will be lost.
At least Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill has brought something from the ashes of the 2010 vote with virtually no help from his elected bosses. Now these same leaders want county staff and contractors to go out and read the tea leaves so they can write a proposal that is politically safe.
The leadership group needs to reclaim its mantle and start shaping a vision for the transit package that offers something new. Giving critics two months to pick this bloated plan apart while backtracking on proposals to energize HART is not moving forward in a smart fashion. There is plenty of time for Hillsborough to prepare a viable transit plan for voters by 2016, which would get a boost if Pinellas voters approve Greenlight. But Hillsborough leaders need to focus more on creating a robust vision for future transit and less on timid political calculations that are likely to bog down the effort than lift it up.