Hillsborough County's elected officails need to develop a transportation plan
How does another 500,000 people grab you? That's the estimated population growth in Hillsborough County over the next two decades. Add to that a surge in development along already congested roads, and the county is looking at decades of traffic gridlock that is bad for our quality of life, bad for our environment, and bad for our economy. Anyone who advocates more pavement as a solution to our transportation problems deserves to be stuck in a perpetual commute at Malfunction Junction, or perhaps along Bruce B. Downs Boulevard, the east end of the Howard Frankland Bridge or Bloomingdale Avenue. Take your pick. As an article by the Tribune's Mike Salinero and Kevin Wiatrowski made clear last Sunday, the county can't afford any more delays in forming a multi-modal transportation plan that incorporates enhanced bus routes, dedicated commuter lanes and the beginning of a light-rail system.That is apparent not only to county planners and commuters, but to a group of business leaders who urged elected officials last week to stop dithering and plan for our future transportation needs, even if that means a tax increase. "Our real shortcoming is that we don't have effective, efficient mass transit that people are willing to choose over getting in their cars," said one of those business leaders, Larry Richey of commercial real estate broker Cushman & Wakefield. "That shortcoming leads to a lot of challenges we have as a community." He's absolutely right. The lopsided defeat of a Hillsborough County transportation referendum three years offers a valuable lesson to those leaders entrusted with solving this problem. If a tax is needed to pay for the improvements, don't expect it to pass without giving voters a fully formed plan that makes the best case for solving the gridlock. Perhaps the best chance for creating that plan can be found in the transportation policy group formed several months ago by County Commissioner Mark Sharpe. Comprised of the mayors of the county's three cities, county commissioners and the heads of the various transportation agencies operating in the county, the group is better positioned to make long-range recommendations than any of those agencies individually. Sharpe says he hopes the group has a plan ready before the end of this year. If the group presents a plan that proposes a tax increase, voters shouldn't immediately slam the door on it. A detailed plan that is feasible and would give people more choices to get to their destinations, while reducing traffic congestion, would be worth paying a little more. The details will need to be thoroughly studied. But it'll take more than enhanced modes of transportation for the county to succeed. Better land use planning will also be needed. Communities are revolting against big-box stores, residential complexes and other traffic generators proposed along roads that already come to a standstill at rush hour. The era of strip malls being approved to serve residential developments built far from existing urban centers needs to come to an end. And county commissioners must be willing to make the case that a tax hike will pay dividends down the road by making Tampa an area desirable to Fortune 500 corporations and young professionals who do not want to be dependent on cars, enhancing the tax base and making the area more inviting to visitors. "If you want to fix the problem, you're going to have to spend some money," Sharpe said. The improving economy is already accelerating growth. That is a welcome development in just about every way but one: traffic. Gridlock threatens economic development and punishes motorists with higher fuel costs and lost time. Without a functioning public transit system that gives options to commuters and visitors alike, Tampa risks being a second-tier city when compared to other commercial centers and tourist destinations. Our elected officials need to adopt the sense of urgency shared by our business leaders. The time to act is now.