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Pat Kemp wants public to put pressure on Hillsborough County Commissioners to fund transit now

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

Pat Kemp lost her battle this week to redirect approximately half of the $812 million in public funds toward transit and not just roads in the next decade.

But Kemp says she will continue to advocate for the county to directly fund transit projects over the course of the next four years.

During the debate about the Go Hillsborough half-cent sales tax proposal last year (which a majority of County Commissioners ultimately deemed unworthy of inclusion on the ballot), County Administrator Mike Merrill knocked down calls by members of the public and even other commissioners to look at spending money out of general revenues vs. going to a sales tax.

But in the aftermath of their voting down Go Hillsborough, the board somehow later found a way to find (initially) $600 million — and ultimately $812 million — of general revenue funds to pay for transportation projects.

“That’s the reason we were told that we needed a sales tax — that there just was no money in the county budget,” Kemp explained to a crowd who gathered at the Oxford Exchange Friday as the featured guest at the weekly Cafe Con Tampa meeting.

Kemp’s alternative plan was to delete some of that $812 million for earmarked mostly for roads (specifically cutting the $97 million to widen Lithia Pinecrest Road) and reallocate it for more trails, greenways, and buses for the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority.

However, unlike in the state legislature where lawmakers can work with colleagues to get them to sponsor bills before presenting them, Sunshine laws prevent fellow commissioners from meeting outside of official meetings to do likewise. That’s something Kemp says is a challenge in creating support for her own proposal. When she presented her alternative plan at Wednesday’s meeting, no other lawmaker was prepared to go with her idea, and she failed to get a second vote to at least continue the debate.

When Kemp presented her alternative plan at Wednesday’s meeting, no other lawmaker was prepared to go with her idea, and she failed to get a second vote to at least continue the debate.

“It really is a process that is very mysterious to me,” Kemp said, despite the fact that she spent three years in the aughts working as an aide to then Commissioner Kathy Castor. “It lends itself to having county staff and the county administrator being powerful and strong in the process. It lends itself really to the strength of lobbyists.”

Kemp is moving forward, though, saying that with enhanced revenues increasing the country budget by some $350 million, now is the time for the board to begin setting aside money for future transit projects.

“We need to stop starving HART, our transit agency,” she said, calling it an issue of social mobility and economic development. Currently, HART gets its funding solely through property taxes at a set rate (Kemp says only Hillsborough and Pinellas are the only Florida counties to fund transit agencies this way).

In something of a radical departure for a transit activist in the Tampa Bay area, Kemp says she now doesn’t believe that light rail is necessary for Tampa Bay. Light rail was a key component of the Go Hillsborough, Greenlight Pinellas and Moving Hillsborough Forward transit initiatives that failed over the past decade. Kemp says that with so many new innovations being developed in the world of transportation, it just doesn’t make sense financially to commit to such a system.

“We’re talking about $90 million a mile. We wouldn’t even be voting to do it for several years,” Kemp said. “We would be acquiring the right of way and wouldn’t start building for a decade or two.”

She’s much keener on autonomous vehicles but says it won’t work if everyone owns a car.

It’s obvious that when it comes to public transit, there is much more support for it in the major cities of the Tampa Bay area like Tampa and St. Petersburg, vs. the rest of Hillsborough and Pinellas, respectively. At least that’s the perception, which Kemp disagrees with.

“I ran countywide, and I won with 63 percent of the vote,” she said of her victory last November (she actually defeated Republican Tim Schock by a 56-44 percent margin). “I was all over this county talking about transit. I was doing it in Brandon, in Fishhawk, I did it in Ruskin, in Sun City Center, I was out in all kinds of places. I think it’s more a failure in leadership,” as the crowd cheered loudly.

Sitting in the audience applauding her was former County Commissioner Ed Turanchik, who is currently deeply involved in the Cross-Bay Ferry project that will continue taking passengers from Tampa to St. Petersburg through the end of next month.

“There’s a huge amount of money coming into this county with new revenues. Pat’s saying, ‘use some of those for transit,'” Turanchik said. “The county administration has said ‘we’re not going to fund transit, that’s HART’s responsibility. That’s not his call.”

Kemp agreed, saying, “We need to make our elected officials standup! Mike Merrill is not elected. Flood them with emails! Flood them with phone calls! They need to take responsibility, they have the vote!” she said to more cheers.

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Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.

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