The transportation plan that Hillsborough County proposed Thursday is a road-heavy approach that doesn't give commuters true transit options, make smarter use of tax money, create better development patterns or lay the groundwork for a modern transportation system. Local leaders need to strengthen the proposal in the coming months. If voters will be asked in 2016 to raise taxes, they should be looking at investing in a bigger vision.
County officials promised after voters rejected a 2010 transit referendum to learn from that poorly executed effort and offer something better. That clearly didn't happen, as the proposal floated Thursday amounts to a retreat in every respect. Five years ago, the county sought a penny sales tax for transportation, with 75 percent going to mass transit and 25 percent for roads. Now the proposal is for a half-cent and the split is reversed, with two-thirds going to roads and one-third for mass transit. As the county's congestion has grown and is expected to worsen, local officials are moving backward with a strategy that would only increase the reliance on already clogged highways.
It wasn't supposed to come to this. Two years ago, local leaders united to look at Hillsborough's needs over the coming decades and to craft a plan to take to voters. But that effort devolved into an exercise in polling public opinion. On Thursday, the county's elected leaders were told that only a half-cent tax has any chance of passing in 2016. A candid discussion about what was needed became a discussion about the path of least resistance.
This effort to offend no one could have the unintended effect of making everyone shrug their shoulders. Even with two-thirds of the $3.5 billion raised going to roads, the money still wouldn't cover the construction backlog. The county would spend the money immediately on the most congested roads and then wonder in 15 years about what revenue stream it could tap next. Antitax advocates would point to the half-cent levy as proof that the county's funding problems are manageable, so why pay more? And why should mass transit advocates be energized about doubling the bus system over 30 years when bus capacity today should be double or triple what it is right now?
The transit portion is not enough to finance a rail system between downtown Tampa and Tampa International Airport, much less a longer link between downtown and the University of South Florida. Though the staff claims Tampa could extend its streetcar, the trolley is hardly a serious substitute for light rail. It's highly unlikely Tampa would devote a huge portion of its share to make rail a possibility down the road. And forget about connecting Tampa and St. Petersburg across the Howard Frankland Bridge under this weak proposal.
This is a road plan disguised as a mobility solution to appeal to suburban voters while taking urban voters for granted. It doesn't recognize Tampa's role as the economic engine for the county or the impact that county residents have every day on the city's aging streets. It would lock in for 30 years an underfunded revenue stream for an already outdated transit system. And by refusing to put serious money on the table for mass transit, local leaders are giving the state and federal governments no reason to make those investments here.
Hillsborough has time to strengthen the plan and to direct more resources to mass transit. But county commissioners need to first realize that this is not just — as several said Thursday — "the time to do something." It's the time to do something right.