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Hillsborough County transportation tax proposal moves forward

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

In a vote that was devoid of much enthusiasm, the Hillsborough County Policy Leadership Group today officially authorized a recommendation to the Hillsborough County Commission to continue to go forward in possibly putting a half-cent transportation tax before voters in 2016.

However, several members of the County Commission urged caution today, saying that they will look forward to seeing what will be part of the actual list of projects that the funds from the tax would go to before they are committing putting the measure on the ballot.

Bob Clifford with Parsons Brinckerhoff, the transportation consulting firm the county is paying to provide information to the public on the plan, said today that there will be a total of 56 more public meetings taking place between late August and mid- October to get more input from the public in forming the plan. There will be two meetings each at the county’s 28 libraries.

On November 5, Clifford will then give a detailed project list to the County Commission for their consideration. Then on December 2 there would be a public hearing, with the BOCC voting on ballot language and deciding if they will put the measure before the public.

And that’s not guaranteed — not if you take into consideration some of the comments made at today’s meeting at the County Center.

For one, there is already a dissenting commissioner — Stacy White. He said that without more information, specifically on the list of transportation projects that the tax would be committed to, he could not go forward even to consider putting it on the ballot later this year.

“Doing nothing is not an option,” declared Commission Chair Sandy Murman. “We have to do something. We have insurmountable traffic in our community.”

However, a moment later Murman said that she was far from a sure vote in December to put the measure on the ballot. “I want to make it clear — I want to see the detailed project list. Whenever we take that vote, if my community and my district does not benefit from this plan, I will not support it.”

Commissioner Al Higginbotham voted to move the issue forward, but made it clear he’s anything but a sure vote in December. “I’ve read those emails,” he said about the opposition against a tax increase. “Some of it is is well earned, because government has been out of control in some cases.”

In case one wasn’t clear about his ambivalence, he spelled it out a moment later.

“I have great, great issues with a tax. But we need to move forward.”

County Commissioner Ken Hagan made it clear that he was tired of the opposition’s resistance to raising the sales tax by half a cent, saying the status quo was unacceptable in terms of where Hillsborough County is in terms of a viable transportation system. He said revenues in the county’s budget simply wouldn’t cut it.

Last week the Sierra Club said that before they could support the transportation tax, they wanted to see the county implement certain measures that could be done first without having to go to the taxpayers. That included raising mobility fees on developers now, as well as raising the gas tax.

But Hagan and County Administrator Mike Merrill noted that a poll conducted by the Go Hillsborough group shows that 80 percent of county citizens oppose such a tax. And Merrill agreed that raising the gas tax was a nonstarter.

“Gas taxes are unreliable and have declining support,” he said, adding that implementing the tax doesn’t catch up to the backlog in paying for roads. “Gas taxes are not the silver bullet that folks think it is,” he added.

However, Merrill did throw the environmental group a bone, saying that raising mobility fees could be introduced even before next year’s election. And he said that it was a half-cent sales tax, or nothing at all.

“At this time a one-percent sales tax just does not seem to be within reach,” he declared.

The proposal for a half-cent sales tax over 30 years’ time would result 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.

For some Tampa residents who supported the doomed transit tax in 2010, this transpiration tax in 2016 looks designed to appease county voters as opposed to aiding transit in Tampa. But Mayor Bob Buckhorn said half a cent was better than nothing.

“it’s important that we keep this in perspective,” he said. “Is it all that we had hoped for? No, it’s not. But I’m a pragmatist. Fifty percent of something is better than zero percent of nothing. So, the important thing is to find a way to win. And to find a way to demonstrate, certainly in the case of rail, that it works.”

Buckhorn says that it’s been shown in other U.S. cities that once the first leg of a transit system is up and working, the public buys in, and it’s easier to go back to taxpayers to fund more transit. “I want to do whatever we can do to make the case that is winnable.”

One other piece of news today: With Parsons about to do a whole set of public hearings, Merrill said it would cost another $325,000. The county will pay for half of that, and Tampa, Temple Terrace, Plant City and the Expressway Authority chipping in for the rest.

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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