Editorial: Hillsborough voters should back referendums for schools, transportation

Published Nov. 5, 2018

Some Hillsborough County voters may be looking at the two local referendums on Tuesday's ballot and asking themselves: Invest in transportation or schools? That's understandable. Given that the two combined would make the sales tax in Hillsborough the highest in the state, some voters could be choosing between what they want and what they feel like they can afford. The reality is both measures deserve support. Good schools and transportation work hand-in-hand to improve a community's economy and quality of life. This dual investment will make the region safer, more attractive for residents and newcomers, and more economically competitive for generations.

There's no denying the impact, particularly to low-income families. Together, the one-cent sales tax increase for transportation improvements and the half-cent sales tax increase for school repairs and upgrades would cost the average household about $183 per year. That's no small hit. Yet it reflects the critical need to address the crises in two core public services. Given that schools and transportation are typically the top two considerations for home buyers and businesses looking to relocate, Hillsborough's combined backlog in school and transportation needs, at about $14 billion, poses a genuine threat to the county's future.

The school tax would pay for air conditioning, roofing and flooring and other major repairs that could make more school campuses true magnets for their neighborhoods, stabilizing growth across the county in a more sustainable way. Likewise, better roads and an expanded mass transit system would give families new school choices at under-served campuses across the county. In both cases, the new money would protect billions of dollars in existing public assets and act as seed money to energize neighborhoods, build Hillsborough's talent pool and diversify the workforce. Approving both taxes would also signal confidence and ambition to the private sector, making the region more attractive for business and investment.

The link between transportation and jobs cannot be overstated. The transportation improvements would reduce congestion and commuting times. They also would give lower-income and suburban residents in particular new mass transit connections to schools, groceries, hospitals and the major employment centers. That includes new links to places like Westshore, Florida's largest office community, with 4,000 businesses and 97,000 employees, and to the University of South Florida area, where the district around the Tampa campus and adjacent hospitals sports 80,000 residents and 49,000 jobs. The plan doesn't divide the cities and the suburbs - it connects them. And because only 27 percent of all personal trips are social, according to the Federal Highway Administration, the overwhelming benefit of the plan is to make workday commuting easier, faster, safer and more affordable.

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Facing both taxes at the same time on the same ballot is not ideal, but both of these measures stand on their own merit. Students, families, homeowners and businesses all will benefit from a stronger school district. And a better transportation system will improve everyday life and provide a growing region with the mobility it needs. These are home-grown proposals that each will be overseen by independent auditing committees, and voters can shape the spending priorities through their elections to city councils, the county commission and the school board. Hillsborough voters are being asked to dig deep, but these are worthy efforts to address critical needs. The considerable benefits will be obvious for all to see.