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Thursday, Jun 21, 2018
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Editorial: Promising transportation directions

Hillsborough voters shouldn’t lack for specifics or input the next time they decide on a transportation plan.

Local leaders Tuesday offered a comprehensive, if preliminary, proposal to overhaul our woeful transportation network.

The plan would widen roads, add buses, develop rail lines, build bike paths and sidewalks, install traffic management technologies and utilize other strategies to move people throughout the county.

Such steps would make getting around Hillsborough far easier.

Adding transportation options also would liberate residents. No longer would owning a car — or two — be a virtual necessity.

All this, of course, will require additional spending, and local leaders are likely to ask voters to approve a 1-cent sales tax increase in 2016. This would raise about $6.1 billion over 30 years.

There will be plenty of opposition. But in contrast to 2010, when voters rejected a transportation tax that was rushed before voters without adequate planning or public comment, this time citizens will have an opportunity to study — and alter — the details.

The plan was developed over the past 14 months by the leaders and staff of the county, the cities of Tampa, Plant City and Temple Terrace, and the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority.

In unveiling it, County Administrator Mike Merrill stressed officials will aggressively engage the public in the coming months and make revisions according to their concerns.

But the existing blueprint addresses needs that had been identified by citizens.

The plan contains a list of more than 300 non-transit projects throughout the county. Just a few examples: Adding bike paths and sidewalks on Columbus Drive in West Tampa; widening Falkenburg Road; improving the Westshore-Gandy intersection; enhancing State Road 39 in Plant City; extending Apollo Beach Boulevard.

The plan also would dramatically expand transit service. At first this would be done by modernizing bus service, making it faster and more frequent. But rail would follow in areas where ridership justified investment, likely from downtown to the Westshore area and to the University of South Florida.

A key concern is to serve employment centers and to enhance the region’s economic development.

The goal is to find efficient ways — whether buses or rail — to serve population centers. A transit system is even envisioned running down State Road 60 from Brandon to downtown.

Nobody expects cars to be abandoned, and motorists’ needs are not neglected. The money would be fairly divided between transit and non-transit expenses.

Merrill acknowledges the costs of all the projects would exceed the $6.1 billion the sales tax would generate.

But the county also should be able to obtain state and federal funds. And the transit lines should offer opportunities for revenue-producing partnerships with developers.

A key concern in pursuing such a grand plan will be oversight and accountability. The plan envisions a beefed-up HART agency overseeing all mass transit — a sensible idea, but one that requires more details and study.

Indeed, the entire proposal merits the public’s scrutiny. But it’s an impressive effort, and all involved deserve credit for trying to find a realistic way to overhaul an antiquated transportation system.

There will be naysayers, but they will need to explain how the no-choice status quo enhances our quality of life or economic prospects

Whatever flaws it may have, the proposal gives directions on how to make traveling across Hillsborough less daunting, dangerous and time-consuming.

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