Hillsborough County commissioners made the right decision Wednesday by declining to put a transportation tax on the November ballot. As disappointing as it is to keep waiting for a comprehensive solution, the Go Hillsborough plan was a weak, backward-looking approach with inadequate funding and misguided priorities that lacked vision. Now the county needs to move forward by preserving the good parts of the plan, addressing its flaws and moving on other fronts to modernize its dated transportation system.
County commissioners voted 4-3 against putting Go Hillsborough on the ballot. Over its 30-year life, the half-cent sales tax increase would have generated about $3.5 billion, or one-third of the $12 billion needed for unfunded road and transit needs. Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, a chief proponent, called the commission's decision "a profile in cowardice." It actually was smart to avoid taking the easy way out and handing an inadequate plan to voters. The mayor's overheated reaction won't help bridge the divide between mass transit advocates in the city and suburban residents who want a greater focus on roads.
Go Hillsborough was too skewed toward roads and devoted too little money toward bus service and rail. Some of the bus and road projects were a complete waste, aimed more at garnering political support from commissioners and voters than on addressing legitimate needs. The measure did nothing to contain sprawl or connect Hillsborough across the region. Three of the four no votes — Commissioners Victor Crist, Al Higginbotham and Stacy White — did the right thing even if it was for the wrong reasons. The last two are firmly against any new tax, and Crist was unwilling to be the decisive vote in favor of one. Credit the other no vote, Commissioner Sandy Murman, with speaking thoughtfully about the plan's shortcomings and recognizing it would have been unwise to put it on the ballot.
Now it is critical that officials continue this city-county collaboration in a spirit of good faith. Much has changed since the last transit plan failed in 2010. The county is emerging from the economic recession. Tampa's airport, seaport and mass transit agencies have new leaders committed to improving mobility across the region. The public is more vocal about the need to address transportation, and support for a meaningful fix is broader across social, political and geographical divides. This week, the commission wisely approved higher fees on developers for transportation-related impacts. If anything, Go Hillsborough failed because the plan failed to keep pace with these events and changes in public thinking.
Going forward, the commission should take several steps. It should pass a gasoline tax that could raise $25 million a year to start addressing the need for better roads. The city-county bus agency needs to offer robust circulator service in West Shore and other business districts, and work should continue to expand the streetcar in downtown Tampa. St. Petersburg and Tampa should keep searching for a way to better connect the two cities with viable transit options. Pinellas and Hillsborough should consider simultaneous transit initiatives. Buckhorn and St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman should enlist other big-city mayors and lobby the Legislature to change state law so the cities can increase sales taxes for transit with voter approval, rather than only the counties.
Scrapping this version of Go Hillsborough is the right call and avoids a monthslong debate on an inadequate plan that voters could have rejected and set the county back years. This is not the time to give up on ever tackling the region's most pressing issue. This is a moment to take a breath, build upon the public's recognition that transportation improvements are needed, and redesign a robust plan that meets the challenge.