The transit package that Hillsborough County officials released last week is a bloated mishmash of skewed priorities. Rather than chart a course for modernizing the transportation system, officials put a chicken in every political pot by proposing a menu of road and mass transit options aimed at appeasing every constituency. Any plan that hopes to win approval by the voters must include a mix of roads, buses and rail. But this proposal is timid and wasteful, and it doesn't do enough at even this early phase to break the county's unsustainable reliance on more roads to handle more traffic.
The proposal is not really a plan but a data dump that compiles road and mass transit projects that various agencies have had on their wish lists for years. Still, the package will be presented to elected officials in Hillsborough and its three cities next week as part of a yearlong effort to build a work plan and funding scheme that could go to the voters. The individual road and transit projects on the list matter, because they will form the foundation of a work plan if Hillsborough voters pass a 1-cent sales tax for transportation, which backers hope to put on the ballot in 2016.
Hillsborough voters rejected a similar measure in 2010 after suburban residents faulted the plan, with its rail component, for being too Tampa-centric. But this new package tilts too far in the opposite direction. It emphasizes rail less than the plan four years ago, and many projects — such as widening roads alongside the University of South Florida, which is a hotbed for bus and bicycle traffic — run at cross-purposes. Rather than start an honest conversation about the county's transit needs, this measure sends the message that it is about politics first, then efficiently moving people. It speaks of a "starter" rail line between downtown Tampa and the West Shore business district, though many rail plans from 2010 could revert to bus service. And there is no talk of rail over the new northbound span of the Howard Frankland Bridge, only months after business leaders successfully pushed the state to agree to substructure along the new bridge to accommodate rail. There also is no meaningful framework for regional connectivity.
Officials say the plan is merely a launching point to begin a wide public debate over what a transit package should include. But this is a disappointing work product after nearly 16 months' time. The county should have shaped the discussion by highlighting what projects make the most sense and where. It should advance the argument that mass transit is the future and building more roads is the past, not just divide the money equally to silence critics. And a proposal to change the governance of HART, the county mass transit agency, would diminish the role that Tampa — Hillsborough's biggest city — would play in building this new transportation system.
County Administrator Mike Merrill should keep working to bring a package forward. The plan has some strengths; it brings Plant City into the transit fold, and it recognizes that the county needs new revenue sources to meet its transportation needs. But it's vital for Hillsborough to get the referendum right the second time around. The hard part is not getting the tax on the ballot; that was achieved in 2010. The challenge is to offer a plan that would transform the region. Voters didn't see that four years ago — and they shouldn't lower their sights two years from now.
Read all of the Times' recommendations for the Aug. 26 primary at www.tampabay.com/opinion