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Hillsborough County half-percent sales tax for transit plan goes public

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

Cautious optimism seemed to be the mood espoused by many members of both the public and lawmakers this afternoon after Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill and Bob Clifford with transportation consultant Parsons Brinckerhoff delivered many (but not all) of the fine details of a proposed half-percent sales transit tax that could go before Hillsborough County voters in the fall of 2016 today.

“We are ranked the 11th worst area for traffic congestion in the United States, and that’s something that I don’t think that any of us are proud of, or want to live with any longer,” declared Hillsborough County Chair Sandy Murman, in kicking off Thursday’s Policy Leadership Group meeting to hear the culmination of a plan that included extensive input from the public facilitated by Parson Brinckerhoff earlier this year.

After the one-cent sales transit sales tax went down to defeat in 2010, Hillsborough County officials essentially did nothing regarding transit for the next couple of years, even though they realized that the problem hadn’t gone away. With $750 million in unmet road maintenance needs, the Policy Leadership Group (also known as the Transportation Economic Development group) began meeting early in 2014 to devise a plan to address the situation.

The answer is now a half-cent sales tax over 30 years time, resulting in $3.525 billion in revenues, which breaks down to $117.5 million annually. 23.8 percent of that would go to road maintenance, 36 percent for new roads, 36 percent for transit, and 3.9 percent for sidewalks/bike safety.

The plan would also call for those revenues to be distributed to the five separate governments or agencies: 55.23 percent would go to Hillsborough County, 25 percent to HART, 16.82 percent to Tampa, 1.72 percent to Plant City and 1.2 percent to Temple Terrace.

The Policy Leadership group will convene next month to vote to approve the proposal, and based on comments made by public officials today, that doesn’t appear to be a problem.

If approved, the Board of County Commissioners would vote on ballot language for a 2016 referendum. It would require five of the seven members to vote yes to get it on the ballot.

Commissioner Al Higginbotham was a huge critic of the 2010 referendum, but he said today that he was impressed by the work that has gone into producing this plan — at least so far. “The plan in 2010 was nowhere like what we have today,” he said. Applauding the involvement of the community, he said that this was “not a proposal cooked up in backrooms with doors closed. …I’m going to support it. I don’t agree with all of it.”

Commissioner Stacy White has been the most outspoken member of the board in saying he hasn’t thought that it was necessary to ask the public to pay for the county’s transit needs. He said today that he was concerned that some citizens in South County would decide to cross county lines into Manatee to go shopping. “I’m trying to get to a yes, but i’m going to need to see more concrete plans.”

Several others in the room said later that they, too, needed more details, and Clifford said that will be coming, as Parsons Brinckerhoff will schedule 12 additional meetings later this year spread out through the county with specific projects that they will ask the public to weigh in on.

When word leaked out on Wednesday that transit would not be as prominently featured in the funding allocation as roads, there was initial criticism, particularly for Tampa-based transit advocates who want light rail. But those opinions were tempered somewhat today, now that it’s apparent that Tampa could on its own opt to fund a project like an extension of the streetcar from downtown to Tampa International Airport.

“I’d be inclined to support it,” said Tampa City Councilman and HART board Chairman Mike Suarez. But he had questions about bonding capabilities. “If we partnered with the city and HART put in $5 million and city put in $15 million, that $20 million then gets leveraged, how do you do that in terms of getting bonded? Because the  city and HART are separate entities, so you’d have to find a way of doing the whole project yourself, or finding a way in which a partnership works. There’s a lot of very specific questions that need to be answered before we can go forward, and how we build something as expensive as rail to go from downtown Tampa to the airport….the devil’s in the details.”

Hillsborough County Commissioner Les Miller initially ran for his District 5 seat back in 2010, when the transit tax was also on the ballot. He said he knew the initiative was going to lose when he campaigned in the unincorporated areas of the county, because voters there said the ballot measure had nothing in it for them. This time it’s different, he maintains.

“Hillsborough County is locked into cars,” he says. “They’re not going to get out of their cars.” He said that in community meetings held by Go Hillsborough in the county, the call was “help us with our roads, our roads, our roads. We’ve gotta take care of both. If we didn’t do that, it was going to fail again.”

He adds though that if Tampa officials want to use their dollars to pay for rail, they can do that. “This does not prevent the city of Tampa if Bob Buckhorn and the City Council want to use those dollars and look at what they could possibly do, for rail, they can.”

But Sharon Calvert says that Tampa would also have to not just pay to build a rail system, but operate it. “It has to be sustainable,” she says.

Known for her strong opposition to the Moving Hillsborough Forward initiative in 2010 and the high-speed rail proposal offered by President Obama, Calvert says 30 years is too long to allow the County Commission to have such a funding source, and says if it was whittled down to something like 7-10 years, it wouldn’t have a difficult time passing in the county.

“Let the voters decide,” she says about going beyond that. But she agrees that the county needs to start funding the construction and rehabilitation of some of its roads. “I need to see the details,” she adds.

County Commission candidate Brian Willis was distressed on Wednesday when he heard about the breakdown of funding being weighed heavily toward roads. But he’s optimistic to hear that the plan allows specific local governments to best decide their needs. “One thing that is clear to me in my campaign is that every neighborhood has their own concerns. Tampa is rail, Thonotosassa it’s not, and if they have a plan that meets those needs, I think a lot of people from around the county are going to be able to get behind it.”

Working with Virginia-based Democratic pollster Keith Frederick, Parsons Brinckerhoff conducted a survey in April in which they say that 52 percent of likely voters said they would vote for a half-cent sales tax, with 43 percent preferring a 1-cent sales tax.

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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