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    A Times Editorial

    Putting a focus on transportation

    © St. Petersburg Times
    published June 9, 2002

    While the candidates for Hillsborough County Commission raise money and bemoan pornography on public access television, community business leaders are putting real issues on the agenda. The Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce has kicked off a summer-long campaign to draw attention to the sorry state of county roads and bus service. The point is not to state the obvious to the majority of commuters who stew in traffic, but to focus on smarter ways of moving residents, tourists and business around.

    This is a business issue for the chamber, but better roads and public transportation would improve the quality of life for anyone who lives, visits or does business here. The county's roads are a weak link in the region's otherwise strong backbone of port and airport facilities. Tampa still is a gateway; having poor roads and mass transit will continue making it difficult for the city to compete with Orlando and the gulf beaches as a tourist destination. Orlando and the beaches have their own attractions, but Tampa has invested heavily in tourist sites, and that commitment of tax money is undermined by chronically congested roads and an unreliable and expensive bus and taxicab system.

    The two most important issues that have to be confronted are inadequate funding for transportation needs and poor management of the county bus system. Hillsborough will not begin to resolve its transit problems until it creates a broader and more stable funding base for roads and until fresh leadership at the bus system can restore public confidence in the benefit of mass transit.

    The chamber's multibillion dollar estimate of road funding needs continues the theme made by a countywide committee impaneled to chart a solution several years ago -- that is, Hillsborough's transit system has fallen behind because elected county commissioners refuse to show any leadership.

    Six of seven commission seats are up this year and nearly all have a crowded slate of candidates. Yet it took a pro-business group like the chamber to goose the debate on raising road taxes. That is a sign not only of how hostile the candidates will be from now to November to the idea of raising taxes, but how difficult it will be to persuade the next board to make roads and mass transit a priority.

    By jumping so publicly into the debate, the chamber has done a service by at least forcing the candidates to take a stand, one way or the other. That record will provide voters, businesses and local economic development officials a glimpse of what Hillsborough can expect to look like in the next few years. The value of this debate is not in endorsing or opposing a chamber transportation plan but rather in stepping back and seeing the larger picture -- acknowledging that growth management plays a role and that mass transit, when done well, is not charity but a practical alternative to the automobile.

    Anyone who thinks denial gets us anywhere should drive sometime through Carrollwood or Brandon.

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