Progress is never cheap, but – as anyone who has idled away hours in the daily gridlock of I-275 can easily relate to – when it comes to the congested roadways of the Tampa Bay area, it is well worth investing in.

According the an article in Saturday’s St. Petersburg Times, a group of the Bay area’s elected officials met on Friday to discuss plans for an elaborate, effective mass transit system that would alleviate traffic problems in the area.

The tentative plans drawn up at the meeting include a primary rail line connecting downtown St. Petersburg, the Gateway-Toytown area, the West Shore District and downtown Tampa, smaller railways and express bus lines extending from this line to connect the beaches, Clearwater, USF and eventually Brooksville, Lakeland and Sarasota. Also included in the plans are ferries providing trips between downtown St. Petersburg, Tampa, Bradenton and Apollo Beach.

These plans are highly ambitious, which naturally means that implementation will be correspondingly expensive. Though work is not expected to start until at least 2010, as it will take considerable time for detailed plans to be drawn up, concerns about funding are already a hot topic among officials. As the fares for such transit services would only cover a fraction of the costs, a half-cent sales tax is being considered as a possible solution – the difficulty will be convincing the voters to implement it.

Such tax raises are traditionally challenging to sell to voters, who naturally oppose most efforts of government to snatch more money from their pockets. In this case, however, it is vital that area leaders present a solid plan that will persuade their constituents of the necessity of the increase, and soon. As Ronnie Duncan, chairman of the Pinellas County Commission said in the Times, “…it’s not going to get any cheaper or easier.”

Why is such persuasion vital? Unlike many tax-raising proposals, this one has a clear goal that benefits everyone, and will actually save voters money in the long run.

Commuting to work or school via mass transit is generally much cheaper than doing so via a personal vehicle, particularly given today’s ever-rising gas prices. Meanwhile, those who find mass transit impractical, given their location or personal situation, will find their available driving routes far less crowded, saving them both time and fuel.

Granted, in order to achieve these lofty goals, the final plan must be well designed, but as long as this is the case, voters should be more than comfortable signing off on such a modest tax hike.