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Funding roads, rail not mutually exclusive

By A TIMES EDITORIAL
Published July 29, 2007


Taxpayers wanting to see a blueprint for wasteful government spending should look at Hillsborough County's road plan. A panel chaired by Commissioner Ken Hagan wants the county to spend $500-million over the next five years, in addition to at least $125-million in regular spending, on a package tied almost exclusively to roads. Anyone stuck in traffic in Brandon or Carrollwood, where the highways max out as soon as they are built, can anticipate the same mess in Sun City Center and Citrus Park. The cost is staggering and won't subside until this commission starts to manage growth.

The price of Hagan's plan is not the major problem. Better roads are part of the equation for any growing community. Hillsborough has billions of dollars in unfunded roads needs - and has for years. Whittling down the list is progress. Some big-ticket projects in Brandon and the Carrollwood area are long overdue. Reducing commute times is a quality-of-life, monetary and environmental issue. For all the attention to rail, this community is years away from even a skeletal system, and improving roads now will make the whole network better.

Where Hagan failed was in striking some balance between roads and mass transit. He had the money to do both, which would have improved mobility and the political climate in the coming years for a referendum on rail, by showing that roads and mass transit were not exclusive choices. But his plan commits only $40-million of the $500-million to transit, and most of that goes for passenger amenities on a handful of corridors. Even an additional $30-million set aside for future land purchases, which many assumed would go to mass transit, could be used for roads instead. Half the money would go to 19 existing or new roads, with the biggest projects in north and south county, near major undeveloped areas primed for sprawl.

Spreading a half-billion in pork is easy when the plan requires no tax increase and the road work - under Hagan's requirement for making the list - can get going by the time the current board members stand for re-election. Hagan said by producing immediate, tangible results, this plan sets the stage for his committee, in the next phase of its deliberations, scheduled for the fall, to focus on long-term and regional mass transit solutions. He will have to raise his game and look for real, if sensitive, solutions, such as finding new monies for transit, doing more to limit sprawl and working to make the suburbs less reliant on cars. Hagan's appointment to a new regional transit authority will test his leadership on this issue, and the board's ability to think in terms beyond more and more asphalt.