Polk County Has Long Way to Go With Transit Tax

The Polk County Commission has been asked to look, once again, at the prospect of a countywide transit tax to expand public transportation.

The Ledger’s Tom Palmer had all the details in Sunday’s paper, including the fact that the commissioners decided to appease the Polk Transit Authority by holding a meeting with elected officials from around the county to discuss the idea.

As I’m sure you remember, county residents overwhelmingly shot down the proposed half-cent sales tax in November by a vote of 93,789 against to 58,112 in favor. The revenue would have supported an expansion of the bus system currently in place in much of the county, including Citrus Connection in Lakeland.

That recent setback alone should give commissioners reason to tell the PTA, “Sorry, but this needs to go away for a while.” Add to that the fact that any new tax, anywhere, is going to get horrible support in this economy, and I’m surprised the commission is even moving forward with this at all.

I’m certainly against any new taxes, and since I’ve been very fortunate to always have my own transportation and never have had to ride the bus in Polk County, I don’t see how the tax would benefit me.

I also have seen too many examples of failed public transportation attempts around the state, including the Tri-Rail system in South Florida. When I see buses or trains “filled” with all of three people and remember that rarely-used service is being subsidized at a huge taxpayer expense, I question the validity of it even more.

Florida, and especially Polk County, is not densely populated like major cities that have flourishing public transportation systems. In places like New York or D.C., it’s just not practical to drive anywhere when you can walk or take a quick trip on public transit at a reasonable expense. Here, driving is the more convenient choice.

I’ve always had my doubts about whether mass transit can really work in Florida, and it will take a lot of data and case studies to change my mind.

And that has been the fatal flaw in the mass transit movement in Polk County. No one has taken up the flag and saturated residents with supporting information in order to persuade them this could be a good idea.

Commissioners Melony Bell and Bob English were quoted in Palmer’s story as saying the private sector should ignite a grass-roots movement in support of the transit tax if it is ever going to pass. Well, that would certainly help the proposal, but I don’t seem to remember an enormous push coming from our elected officials to pass the thing, either.

Sure, they may have supported it. But if they had a clear vision for why this was key to the county’s future, it wasn’t communicated.

People aren’t going to vote to pay more taxes just because “it’s the right thing to do.” They need to tangibly see the benefits, and to have those benefits hammered home to them.

For instance, how many Lakeland residents were fully aware that if the measure passed they would see a decrease in the transit fee already included in their property taxes?

Lakeland Local’s Kemp Brinson wrote a pretty enlightening piece about the bus system in the county, actually riding the bus to work to test out its efficiency. He came away impressed, as did I from reading his story.

But why do we need to expand our system? How many people can’t get to work any other way than public transportation? If there were no public transit options available, exactly how damaging would that be to the local economy? If this system is so vital to the county’s future, why can’t current resources be allocated to support it?

Again, there are probably very valid answers to all of those questions. We just need to hear them first and then judge whether a new tax is worth it.

But until then, this proposed tax won’t have a chance.

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2 Responses to Polk County Has Long Way to Go With Transit Tax

  1. Kemp Brinson says:

    Good thoughts. Thanks for the nod to my Lakeland Local Bus write-up.

    I think there are more people than we realize that, for whatever reason, are not able to use a car to get where they need to go. Many of these people may simply do without transportation – meaning that they do not have jobs to need to get to, and little practical ability to get one. They get by on public assistance programs of various sorts. A car is a very difficult hurdle for people to overcome in order to bootstrap themselves into mainstream economic life.

    I think we won’t invest in mass transportation (which does not necessarily have to be public) until the costs and trouble of driving for the rest of us become so high (in terms of money, time, and intangibles) that it is a viable alternative for more people. As long as we continue to subsidize car travel, that’s the way we will keep traveling.

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