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Thursday, Oct 02, 2014
Joe Henderson Columns

I suppose we could always go back to the horse-and-buggy

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Oh, dear heaven.

TAX!!! TAX!!!

Sound the alarm! Prepare the drones!

Yep, you read it right. As soon as March 2016, voters could be asked to approve a 1-cent increase in Hillsborough County’s sales tax to address the stifling, bumper-to-bumper, ever-more-frustrating thing we laughingly call traffic.

“Traffic” implies something actually is moving, and anyone who commutes here knows what a joke that is.

But, my gosh, paying a higher tax for something to fix the problem? Especially when that fix might include some snooty commuter rail like a lot of those other fancy-pants cities with their hip, young workers and high-tech jobs?

I can hear the sound of tea party drums beating now, rousing the faithful to march on the county center with pitchforks, flaming torches and ballots marked “NO!”

I imagine they are sounding louder today after Hillsborough County Commissioner Victor Crist’s motion to give Tampa Tea Party co-founder Sharon Calvert a seat on the HART board died for lack of a second.

Whatever HART winds up looking like after the politicians are done arguing over what it should look like and do, it still will be the place where the county’s critical transportation needs are addressed.

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The county’s long-range plan includes the magic word: rail. It would link West Shore and downtown Tampa. There would be a bunch of other projects, too, but you know where opponents will fixate.

I think Calvert believes commuter rail is really an airborne disease, spread by liberal mosquitoes who suck the money out of your wallet and whisk it away on a choo-choo. I’m not sure that’s the kind of forward-thinking voice this problem demands.

“I did it in the spirit of trying to reach a resolution with someone you don’t agree with,” Crist told me. “I was just trying to get all viewpoints represented at the table.”

Having Calvert in an official position of influence overseeing the future of our county’s traffic solutions would have been a great way to block any solution for as long as she would have served.

Because his bold gambit failed, Crist can accomplish the same thing with a taped loop of someone saying “No ... No ... No” for the duration of a meeting.

Close?

“I have done my own recent studies on this, and I have to tell you it isn’t pretty,” Crist said. “I don’t think this comes close to passing.”

Assuming, though, it does pass, the county estimates it would generate $6.1 billion over 30 years — which, Commissioner Mark Sharpe said, “... would be swallowed up tomorrow by projects that need to be done right now.”

So what do we do, besides invest in horse-and-buggy dealerships?

Solutions to problems like this cost money. People keep moving here and clogging roads past the point of saturation. Opponents lapse into a hissy every time the word “rail” is mentioned, as if they believe roads are free.

Roads aren’t free.

The Hillsborough Metropolitan Planning Organization estimated long-range major roadway projects in the county will cost $15 billion. That’s just roadwork; it doesn’t include rail, extra buses, or anything that could get cars off the road.

My only apprehension about the proposed sales tax is that it doesn’t go far enough — even if it passes.

Crist said the county should scale back its wish list and focus on what we can pay for. That sounds reasonable, as long it includes a giant fence to keep anyone else from moving here. Estimates are for 200,000 more people in east and south Hillsborough by the end of this decade alone.

The need doesn’t stop, whether we believe we can afford it or not.

And although the $6 billion estimate obviously falls short of paying for everything we need, it doesn’t include such things as user fees plus state and federal grants. Why, there was even a time when we could have gotten money from the feds for high-speed rail and .... nevermind.

“(Crist) may call it too lofty, too big,” Sharpe said. “But there is a moment in history where you decide if you want to compete as a city, or fall back. We can’t flinch on this issue, waver, or pander to ideology. The stakes are too high.”

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