Tampa, FL – While most voters going to the polls across the country will be focusing on who they want to see populate governors’ mansions and the Capitol, people lining up to vote in Tampa, Florida will have to decide if they want to be paying one cent more per dollar in sales tax to fund a light rail project in the Tampa Bay county of Hillsborough.
With Tampa lacking a light rail system, working with relatively few buses, and needing major road improvements, Hillsborough has put before its voters the option to pay for a series of transportation projects aimed to address the needs of commuters with a sales tax hike. Most of the sales tax will go toward funding a light rail system; the rest will go to enhancing the local bus network and improving roads.
While many proponents of the sales tax increase suggest Hillsborough can’t do without these projects, many others are say Hillsborough voters can’t stomach a one-cent tax hike during these trying economic times.
Lifelong Resident Doesn’t See Light Rail as the Solution
As a lifelong resident of Hillsborough County, I’m impacted both as a tax payer and as a commuter. I’m 29, and really can’t recall a time when Hillsborough hasn’t faced transportation woes. In the 1980s and 1990s, when I was growing up, the big issue of the day was improving roads that literally hadn’t been touched since the 1950s and 1960s. Today, with a host of arteries and highway interchanges being improved around the county, we find ourselves faced with deciding on whether we’ll pony up a penny for rail, buses, and more road widening.
As a car owner, I’m simply another motorist in a county that’s as big as the state of Rhode Island, both in geographic size and population. There’s no way I could go without my own set of wheels here in Hilllsborough County because bus coverage in Hillsborough is uneven and relatively scant. There’s no rail system. But even if we had one, I’d be able to drive from point A to point B faster than a train with many stops could transport me.
Light Rail Won’t Fix Aging Roadways
I spend many hours on the road each week between work obligations, errands, and recreation. Though Hillsborough County has come a long way over the past decade in improving its roads, many of the same problems persist – roads that disappear and reappear all over the map, a lack of pedestrian accommodations (like so many in Hillsborough, I love walking and biking), potholes, aging road infrastructure, and turn lanes which were designed to handle traffic loads of yesteryear.
How would the penny tax help – or hurt – me? While I’ll gladly pay an extra cent per dollar to help my county fix problems that have been affecting me all my life, I’m left to wonder if this tax increase would really help me. After all, Hillsborough County is a vast land of sprawl. Relatively few live within ten minutes of their jobs… or even their local grocery store. And, yes, we all love our cars here. I for one am not going to spend money to ride a train that I’ll need to travel to get to in the first place… And that’s assuming the train is a faster option than driving (which is doubtful).
As of now, there are still no definite plans on where the rail might go, exactly which regions of the county it would serve, or how many stops it could have.
Commuter Trains Don’t Work in Hillsborough County
In Hillsborough County, a light rail train system will be seen as more of a novelty than a viable transportation option. Back in the 1980s, there was the People Mover – a tram system that linked Downtown Tampa to the nearby community of Harbour Island. The plan looked good on paper. But it failed miserably. Ridership was so low the train couldn’t pay for itself. By the end of the 1990s, the trains were gone and the elevated tramway structure was demolished.
That’s the future of light rail in Hillsborough County. A plan that looks good on paper but solves nothing. With millions of dollars going to transportation, the bulk of the tax increase will leave behind roads that are too narrow, potholes that are hurting axles (and our backs), and pedestrians without enough adequate sidewalks and bike paths to get around.
Residents Divided on the Sales Tax Increase
Right now, Hillsborough residents are divided on whether to vote for the penny sales tax increase. Where minds will be come November 2 might largely hinge on how the economy is doing then – and if Hillsborough voters got stuck in traffic that morning. Hillsborough needs to do something to fix its transportation system – but building a light rail system that can’t possibly thrive in a county where there’s a car in virtually every driveway isn’t the answer.