Moving Hillsborough Forward Chair Garry Sasso on what happens next

Garry Sasso is the Chair of Moving Hillsborough Forward, the group formed this year to try to get the transit tax referendum passed in Hillsborough County on November 2.  He's also the chair of the Tampa Bay Partnership, a major local group that was solidly behind the proposal which lost overwhelmingly at the polls.  In this op-ed, Sasso writes about what happens next in the attempt to get a light rail system built in Hillsborough County, which ultimately would extend throughout the entire Tampa Bay area.

Commentary:  What’s Next …?  Moving Forward

By Gary Sasso, President & CEO, Carlton Fields

Chair, Moving Hillsborough Forward

Chair, Tampa Bay Partnership

We now know that a majority of citizens in Hillsborough County voted recently to disapprove the County's transportation plan.  But that does not tell the whole story.

Independent post-election polling by Fallon Research tells us that 21% of those who voted against the tax would like another issue to be placed on the ballot when more definitive information is available or the economy gets better, and another 20% would favor a lower tax to fund vital improvements to existing services and roads.  Only 31% of those who voted against the tax say no additional steps should be taken to improve roads and transit or to build a light rail system – a distinct minority.

A total of 28% of all voters, including 44% who voted against the referendum, say their decision was influenced by uncertainty about the total cost of the light rail system, an issue that can be clarified with the benefit of more time and study.

A total of 26% of the voters, including 47% who voted for the tax, said they were favorably influenced by the information provided by Moving Hillsborough Forward, the coalition of businesses, community organizations, and individuals who championed the tax.  By comparison, just 6% of all voters, comprising only 7% of those who voted against the tax, said they were influenced by the information provided by the primary committee that opposed the tax, No Tax for Tracks.  In fact, 75% of those who voted against the tax reported that they did not recall hearing any information from No Tax for Tracks during the campaign.  This suggests that passive opposition and concern about the economy was more detrimental than active organized opposition.

Finally, a majority of voters in the City of Tampa voted to approve the plan.  But this was a countywide initiative; so ultimately it failed.

The issue remains, what do we do now?

The problems addressed by the plan have not gone away.  Stubborn facts persist.  We will add a half million new residents to Hillsborough County in the next 25 years.  Yet, our roads are already strained beyond capacity.  The County does not have sufficient funds to meet our transportation needs now and into the future without new funding sources.  Our economy remains stagnant.  We continue to export our state and federal tax dollars to other communities to help build their transit systems, as their systems become more and more viable and our plans for our future are deemed less and less "feasible."

What solutions have been proposed?  Some have argued we should continue to rely primarily on roads, using the successful model of the Selmon Expressway to fund them.  The Selmon Expressway is a toll road.  Do we want to put up toll booths everywhere we need to repair, expand, or build new roads?  Some suggest that buses will suffice, but the County lacks funds to implement its plan for buses, buses still use our roads, and buses alone will not stimulate the kind of growth and development needed to diversify and strengthen our weakened economy.  These alternatives are illusory and offer a discouraging future for Tampa Bay.

This is not the future we want for our community.  This is not the future we want for our region.  The Tampa Bay Partnership remains committed to its view that investment in infrastructure, including public transit, is absolutely necessary to building inclusive, sustainable, and productive prosperity for the entire Tampa Bay region.  We cannot give up on this vision any more than we can give up on Tampa Bay.

Nor can we wait until it is safe to wade back into the electoral waters, the economy improves, and the mood of all our citizens swings back to a more cheerful one.  We must take responsibility for our own economy and for our own cheer, and we must do that now.  To that end, the Tampa Bay Partnership will continue to work with all concerned citizens and public and private leaders in the Tampa Bay region and the State to develop the kind of infrastructure we need to achieve economic health and the quality of life in our region that all our citizens want and deserve.

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