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  1. Opinion

Editorial: Improve Go Hillsborough or shelve it

The Hillsborough County Commission should clear the way this week for a formal vote later this month on whether to put the Go Hillsborough initiative on the November ballot. But that would buy the county only two weeks to achieve what it hasn’t for the past two years: the creation of a robust plan to improve transportation in a meaningful way. Officials need to enhance this proposal or forget it for now.
The Hillsborough County Commission should clear the way this week for a formal vote later this month on whether to put the Go Hillsborough initiative on the November ballot. But that would buy the county only two weeks to achieve what it hasn’t for the past two years: the creation of a robust plan to improve transportation in a meaningful way. Officials need to enhance this proposal or forget it for now.
Published Apr. 8, 2016

The Hillsborough County Commission should clear the way this week for a formal vote later this month on whether to put the Go Hillsborough initiative on the November ballot. But that would buy the county only two weeks to achieve what it hasn't for the past two years: the creation of a robust plan to improve transportation in a meaningful way. Officials need to enhance this proposal or forget it for now.

The measure would raise the sales tax by a half-cent, generating $117 million a year for road, bus and streetcar improvements. It is legitimate to put major public policy questions to the voters, but elected officials also have a responsibility to offer real solutions that match the scope of the challenge. That's where this referendum falls short.

A half-penny tax would raise $3.5 billion over 30 years. Yet the county's transportation backlog is three or four times that figure, between $9 billion and $13 billion. A county with 1.3 million people that expects to reach 2 million by 2040 cannot possibly get a grip on its transportation problems with a halfhearted effort driven by political calculations rather than a clear-eyed vision for the future. Hillsborough could make a half-penny work under some scenarios by augmenting the sales tax increase with other sources. But this commission has refused to budge, taking gas taxes off the table (despite low prices at the pump) and dragging its feet on charging developers more for the traffic congestion they cause.

Of course, revenue is only half of the equation. The spending plan also falls flat, as it continues to pour more money into the same old road system instead of investing strategically in more efficient transit options. Of the $1.2 billion committed for the first 10 years, 58 percent would go to roads and 42 percent to mass transit. That split should be reversed. This plan won't give commuters convenient and reliable options for leaving the car at home, and it guarantees that the road network will absorb the lion's share of transportation spending for decades.

The plan for mass transit is less than meets the eye. Of the $505 million in spending in the first decade, one-fifth would go for an express bus line in the southeast suburbs, one of the worst areas for bus use in the county. Another $21 million would go for ferries to take south county residents assigned to MacDill Air Force Base onto their restricted work site. Running empty buses in the suburbs is not a wise use of these precious dollars or a good visual advertisement for mass transit. As a recipient of federal transit aid, the county could also be courting an equity issue by funding a bus to nowhere in the suburbs at the expense of service to inner-city residents. And taking employees on a closed route to and from a restricted military installation is a nice addition but of limited public benefit.

Take away the suburban express and the ferry, and the spending plan becomes more upside-down, with one-third for transit and two-thirds for other pet projects. For the much-touted Tampa rail project from downtown to the airport, there is no route, no train technology, no finance schedule and no idea how the city would cover 93 percent of the project's $480 million cost. A study to answer those questions wouldn't even begin for at least two years. Same for the express bus in the suburbs — no route and no spending plan. The Legislature put $100,000 in the budget this year to study an alignment, but Gov. Rick Scott vetoed it.

With its lack of specifics, the Go Hillsborough plan is not a coherent long-term plan but a list of projects the county and its three cities could fund with a new revenue source. There is no overarching vision for bringing together the road and mass transit projects, no discussion of how and when the many moving parts fall into place, no explanation of how projects fit into larger plans by the area ports or airports, and no sign of how Go Hillsborough would make the county more competitive.

Even after two years of study, officials have failed to get ahead of the problem by addressing land development policies that drive new growth to the far-flung exurbs. If anything, this measure promotes sprawl by forestalling any effort to address growth and transportation in a single policy. County commissioners and staff went to some lengths during a meeting last week to underscore that there is no plan for introducing rail across the county, much less across the Howard Frankland Bridge. And the spending plan doesn't extend beyond the first 10 years, leaving two-thirds of a 30-year tax proposal still in the conceptual stage.

This editorial page supported the initiatives in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties in recent years that failed to win voter approval for new transportation taxes. We encouraged Go Hillsborough as the effort stumbled over the past two years, even amid an investigation over politically charged, unfounded allegations that consulting contracts for Go Hillsborough were illegally awarded to county insiders.

But it's long been clear that county commissioners have no stomach for making the hard decisions that would make Go Hillsborough stronger. The result is an underfunded, poorly designed plan that seeks to appease antitax conservatives in the suburbs at the expense of urban residents and puts off questions about rail, growth and regional connectivity until further down the road.

At a meeting last week, the county staff tried to airbrush more muscle onto this plan, but it is late in the game. The commission is expected to decide Wednesday whether to schedule an April 27 hearing and vote for putting the referendum on the ballot. These final days offer one last chance for the county to improve the plan and for civic leaders to demonstrate whether they believe this effort is worth the time and money that a political campaign would require. This is a disappointing product after several years of work, and the question now is whether it can be enhanced enough at the eleventh hour to justify being placed on the November ballot.