Any movement on modernizing local transportation is welcome, even small steps like the million dollars the state recently approved to design a Tampa Bay regional transit plan.
But the region won’t make any progress on transportation, its single most pressing public need, if it keeps taking steps backward.
That’s just what the Hillsborough County Commission did recently in moving along two proposals that would allow denser development outside its urban service area.
The urban service area is where local governments have committed to provide the kind of infrastructure that people expect in an urban area — water, sewer, stormwater and transportation among them. Take a look at the red lines outlining the area on a map, and you’ll see it encompasses half the county.
So why make it bigger?
With all the angst over transportation hindering quality of life and economic growth in Hillsborough County, how can commissioners justify busting out of these carefully considered boundaries knowing their actions help create the sprawl behind the gridlock?
In one of their recent votes, as reported by Steve Contorno of the Tampa Bay Times, they explained that they felt bad for the landowners, an Illinois couple, because 20 years ago the county changed how many homes could be built on their property.
The proposal also was pushed by the county’s busiest lobbyist, Vin Marchetti, whose clients have contributed generously to incumbent commissioners as they prepare to run for re-election this year.
These votes signal that despite their earnest pledges to the contrary — most earnest right after they failed to deliver a comprehensive transportation plan in 2016 despite two years of effort — commissioners aren’t really serious about finding a way out of this transportation mess.
The ill-advised land use decisions won’t scuttle the county’s goals of directing at least 80 percent of future population growth into the area, of creating a clear distinction between urban and rural lands, and of timing urban growth to coincide with the installation of the infrastructure it will require.
But the commission would be wise to make these their last encroachments on the urban service area.
Some 600,000 people are expected to move into the county by 2045 so the pressure will be great to relax the standards again and again. There are plenty more landowners out there, from Illinois and elsewhere, poised to hire Marchetti and other lobbyists to argue that their right to make the most they can from their piece of Hillsborough County trumps the needs of the broader community as expressed in those carefully considered boundaries.
Enough landowners, in fact, to render useless any exercise in drawing lines around an urban service area other the borders of Hillsborough County itself.
The commission won’t have to wait long to show whether it takes these concerns seriously.
First, it will consider a proposal April 16 for a 260-bed assisted living facility in Valrico. Then, in October, it’s expected to decide on a Marchetti-backed proposal to allow greater development density across some 4,400 acres in eastern Hillsborough County.
Twice in recent months, commissioners have sought and received advice on how to accommodate population growth. Both times, once from consultant Urban Land Institute and once from their own staff, they were urged to rein it in by resisting encroachment.
"Don’t do it," advised one of the consultants, Alan Razak. "You have a precious resource here that you don’t want to squander."
Commissioners are hearing conflicting voices on an issue that may well decide whether they get re-elected.
They soon will have a chance to show the courage and consistency it takes to heed the right ones.