What's next for local transportation? Kevin O'Hare, Tampa

Editor's note: In thinking about "What's Next For Florida,'' young professional Kevin O'Hare opines about what he sees in Hillsborough County's new transportation plan. 83 Degrees Media invites young professionals to submit opinion columns of 600-800 words describing what they would like to see next in Florida's future. Email [email protected]

For decades, leaders in Hillsborough County and the cities of Tampa, Temple Terrace and Plant City have dreamed about creating a world-class transportation system designed for easy access to many excellent amenities, champion sports teams and efficient travel for residents, workers and tourists.

Now Hillsborough County has emerged with a new plan and mindset going forward. 

Under an initiative set forth by the Transportation for Economic Development Policy Leadership Group, consensus seems to be building around a half-percent sales tax increase to build roads, maintain existing roads, expand the HART bus system and add bicycle paths and pedestrian friendly streets and sidewalks.

The proposed sales tax increase is expected to collect $117.5 million annually, for a total of approximately $3.5 billion over 30 years. The dollars would be divided two-thirds to road development and maintenance; one-third to transit. 

The plan, put together over four months during a series of public hearings and workshops led by engineering firm Parsons Brinkerhoff, also allows options for the cities of Tampa, Temple Terrace and Plant City to have the flexibility to commit dollars from their portion of the funding to specific projects, including the possibility of supporting big-ticket transit projects like light rail.

Essentially, this “Comprehensive Transportation Plan,” as County Administrator Mike Merrill puts it, provides our elected officials options with local dollars to fund transportation projects on a local -- citywide and countywide -- scale. 

The plan also calls for HART (Hillsborough Area Regional Transit) to receive 25 percent of the total annual dollars collected, allowing for improvements and modernization of the public bus system. 

This also gives HART the opportunity to pursue more futuristic projects such as Bus Rapid Transit or Light Rail, and to work with relevant jurisdictions to increase local spending on transit-oriented projects. 

This commitment of local dollars for improving transportation could also provide the matching dollars necessary to make Tampa, Temple Terrace, Plant City and Hillsborough County more competitive in seeking state and federal grants and other funding revenue. All in all — this plan is a first step for our community, with 81 percent of people polled in GoHillsborough agreeing that the status quo is unacceptable and something must be done.

Is half the pie better than the whole pie?
The biggest criticism of the plan is that it doesn’t go far enough. Hillsborough County has identified the need for existing road and transit improvements that cost upwards of $9 billon and this plan raises only $3.5 billion over 30 years. 

In addition, the allocation of dollars to roads versus transit reflects spending money on the status quo to fix the status quo rather than boldly outlining visionary solutions. More than anything, as a resident of East Hillsborough, I am deeply disappointed in the lack of real transit options this plan has for my community. 

While many transportation plagues of East Hillsborough were brought forth by reckless suburban sprawl, our part of the county has gotten the short end of the stick when it comes to real transit options as well, with little to no service in Brandon/Valrico. While this plan provides funding to improve the current situation, it does not even touch close to relieving our woes.

If you walked into the 26th floor of the County Center in downtown Tampa on June 11th when the plan was unveiled, you would have seen a room filled with unenthusiastic representatives of the public and a group of elected officials who hope this proposal is just enough to get passed by voters who’ve rejected past transportation referendums.

Unfortunately, this plan has yet to properly address a real critical issue and a perception that “Transit Can Wait” another 10, 20, 30 years. Going back 10 years ago, the Hillsborough Metropolitan Planning Organization in the 2025 Long-Range Transportation Plan laid out the long-term goal for implementing improvements to our transit on a large scale by 2025 with Bus Rapid Transit and Fixed Guideway criss-crossing the county. That’s 10 years from now. By 2025 under the GoHillsborough plan, we will start to wrap up all of our existing road projects. When we made the 2025 plan back in 2004, we shared a optimism for a bright future for Hillsborough County in the next millennium, with many of our woes the same as they were a decade ago. This optimism has been thrown out for a misaligned sense of realism and a lack of political will for real investment. 

It’s time for a change in attitude. 

Go get ‘em -- We can do it! 

What we need is a renewed optimism for our future. We need a locker room pep talk. We need our coach to tell us that we will not be defeated. (The sports references are for you, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn.) 

We need to ensure that this community will prosper from a plan, both short-term and long-term. While we will fix our current road improvement backlog in 10 years under the GoHillsborough proposal, how long will it be until we touch transit again? 

How many more people have to move into overcrowded suburbs until we get a real bus plan in the unincorporated county? How many more Fortune 500 companies will choose to move their headquarters to other cities because of Tampa’s current congestion and soon-to-be road fatigue when we start digging for more roads? How much of the intellectual capital of the Millennial generation are we going to lose to Orlando or Miami or cities farther north? How many seniors will face immobility in South County and Sun City? 

How long until we are having this conversation again, asking for more money for transit because we’ve been spoon-feeding funding for over 30 years? When are we going to realize our transit nightmare needs serious consideration and action?

Hillsborough County is at the beginning of a turning point. We have emerged from the recent recession with the opportunity to be a powerhouse in economic development. Consider Jeff Vinik’s plans for downtown Tampa’s Channel District, Tampa International Airport’s ongoing expansion and Tampa’s position as a global player in diplomatic relations with Cuba. 

However, Hillsborough County will continue to be undervalued and under-appreciated, with economic and intellectual capital leaving for other cities unless we make the investments that this county and the people who live here deserve. This county has a wide-range of infrastructure issues and transit issues, and it is critical we address them all with efficiency and speed. Simply cutting our losses and going for something that is inadequate but has a better margin of passing in a ballot referendum and then unevenly distributing the costs only does a disservice to economic development and future residents.
Today, I hold an optimistic and positive mindset that Hillsborough County and the cities of Tampa, Temple Terrace, and Plant City have the potential to become world-class communities. This is an exciting time to live in Hillsborough County, with a $1 billion remodeling of 40 acres in downtown Tampa, watching neighborhoods like Ybor City, Seminole Heights and Tampa Heights prosper, along with development and housing being built in Valrico and Brandon for new residents to call home. 

The prospect of a bright future here is a big reason why I decided to stay and attend the University of Tampa and not leave Hillsborough. I see this conversation as the beginning of transformational change. 

As a citizen, a taxpayer, a student, and more importantly, a member of this community, I recognize the importance of transportation and economic prosperity. 

We cannot wait any longer, kick the can any further, or spoon feed any more. We must get this right, not only because we owe it to ourselves as residents but because it goes to the manifest destiny of making Hillsborough and Tampa a world-class greater community. 

I invite you to join me and support transit funding for the future, recognize that Tampa is and will be one of the greatest places to live in the world, starting right now, right here.

Kevin O’Hare, 18, is a lifelong resident of Valrico and has been a transit advocate since the age of 15 with the founding of Connect Tampa Bay in 2013. Kevin is also the youngest appointee to a local government board as an at-large member of the Hillsborough Metropolitan Planning Organization’s Citizens Advisory Committee since age 17. He also serves in other capacities as a youth and education advocate. Kevin will be a incoming freshman at the University of Tampa in the Fall of 2015 with a major in Government and International Affairs. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.