The voters spoke. Time to act on Hillsborough transportation tax. | Editorial

LUIS SANTANA   |   Times Bus riders get off a Hart bus at the University Area Transit Centerl in June in Tampa.
LUIS SANTANA | Times Bus riders get off a Hart bus at the University Area Transit Centerl in June in Tampa.
Published July 15, 2019

Hillsborough County voters spoke loudly in November by approving their first-ever local tax for transportation improvements. Now it's time for the county commission to begin carrying out those wishes by approving a measure Wednesday that puts the tax money to its anticipated use.

Commissioners are expected to consider an ordinance that would divide the tax proceeds into specific pots. The referendum approved by 57 percent of the vote allocated specific amounts to various transportation categories, from road and bridge work to mass transit projects. It also gave an appointed oversight board the power to approve and disapprove projects if local agencies strayed from those spending categories. In a June ruling to a legal challenge of the tax, Hillsborough Circuit Judge Rex Barbas struck down the specific allocations and the veto power of the oversight board, finding they usurped the commission's legal authority. But Barbas upheld the tax and left the spending plan to commissioners. The judge's ruling was a turf issue, not a value judgment on where the money should be spent.

The appropriate course now is for the commission to codify the voters' will. That would deliver on the promises made in the run-up to the referendum, and form the basis of a balanced approach to improving roads, bridges, mass transit and pedestrian safety. Commissioners should commit at least 45 percent of the tax proceeds to Hillsborough Area Regional Transit, the county mass transit provider, as the charter amendment provided. And the board should embrace the formula that voters agreed to for road, bridge, intersection and safety improvements, which address a number of critical needs countywide and which were instrumental in attracting votes in both urban and suburban precincts.

Commissioners should also fashion a meaningful role for the oversight board. That panel could play a critical part in keeping spending plans on track and in maintaining public confidence and involvement in the decision-making process. While the judge struck the board's veto power, he rightly noted that it "is not prohibited from reviewing materials and executing supplementary duties." That could include being a one-stop shop for public information on spending, which seems incumbent on a tax that will generate billions over its 30-year life.

The court ruling should end any uncertainty and clear the way for local agencies to begin these improvements. Voters made their wishes known eight months ago, and local governments have an obligation to honor the outcome at the ballot box.

Beyond being what many rightly describe as a transformational investment in transportation, this referendum also set the state for unprecedented regional cooperation. The spending plans - and the more commuting options they will create — will nudge Hillsborough and its three cities to work together like never before. The new revenue source also makes Hillsborough a more vital player in improving regional connections — and a model for other Tampa Bay area counties also looking to raise the bar. Voters want to see shovels in the ground, potholes filled, safer sidewalks and more buses more frequently — and faster connections to the airport, the University of South Florida and other major destinations. The commission can take a first, important step Wednesday by getting a spending plan in place.