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Sierra Club says it has NOT taken a position on proposed transportation tax

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

Earlier this month this news organization reported in a headline that the Tampa Bay Sierra Club opposed the proposed half-cent transportation tax that may go before Hillsborough County voters next year. The next day we wrote a follow-up report with Sierra Club program director Pat Kemp, who said that the Club had not opposed the measure, but instead was calling for the county government to implement other measures first before it could come around to possibly consider its support, such as raising the gas tax.

The next day, the Tampa Bay Times published its own story on the Sierra Club’s statement, headlining that the Sierra Club (and the Tea Party) were “skeptical” of the proposed sales tax. Several days later the Tampa Tribune weighed in, with its headline focused simply on the fact that the Club had called for an increase in the local gas tax.

Officials with the environmental group says that the impression remains that it opposes the transportation tax, prompting Sierra Club chairman Kent Bailey to issue a press release Thursday night refuting that position outright.

“For the purpose of setting the record straight: the Sierra Club has NOT taken a position on a sales tax referendum in Hillsborough County,” the statement says in bold print.

In its original statement, the environmental organization said that the county should change its development policy, increase development fees, and adopt the local gas tax before pursuing a sales tax increase.

Since then, County Administrator Mike Merrill has stated publicly that the county could attempt to raise impact fees (also known as mobility fees) before the 2016 election.

“Recovering the full cost of development would raise more than $50M for transit and transportation,” Bailey says in the new statement. “And this doesn’t require a referendum.”

However, Merrill also said that implementing the five-cent gas tax was a non-starter, referring to a poll done by the Go Hillsborough organization that said that 80 percent of county residents surveyed said they did not support such as plan– which commissioners could implement on their own, without going to the taxpayers.

“Gas taxes are unreliable and have declining support,” Merrill said last week, 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.

The proposal announced by Merrill last month would be for 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 Policy Leadership Group approved the plan last week, but the Board of County Commissioners will ultimately decide whether the measure will go on the ballot later this year. Several members said they could not forecast how they would vote, with one member — Stacy White– declaring outright he would oppose the measure when it came for that vote to take place.

Advocates of the measure insist that its plans aren’t fully baked, and that there will be ample time (such as over 100 meetings!) for the public to continue to have an impact on changing it for the better.

Here is the Sierra Club’s statement in full:

For the purpose of setting the record straight: the Sierra Club has NOT taken a position on a sales tax referendum in Hillsborough County Funds from any sales tax increase would not become available before 2017.  The Sierra Club supports using every available option to provide funding for transit and transportation now.  The assumption that support for increased funding for transit and transportation now implies a lack of support for increased funding later is contrary to fact.

We vigorously oppose any major expansion of the Urban Service Area.  Every such expansion puts every available solution to our transit and transportation problems further out of reach.

Increased revenue from mobility fees is available now, if the county commission is willing to act.  Recovering the full cost of development would raise more than $50M for transit and transportation.  And this doesn’t require a referendum.

Pasco County sets aside 1/3 of all new revenue for transit and transportation, and Hillsborough County should too.  If the county commission is willing to act, we could have $33M available now.  And this doesn’t require a referendum.

Pasco, Polk, Manatee and about half the counties in Florida collect an optional nickel per gallon gas tax to fund transit and transportation.  If the county commission is willing to act, we could have $25M available now.  And this doesn’t require a referendum.

The longstanding Sierra Club policy that roads should be funded by those who use them through increased taxes on fuel was reaffirmed 1994.  This is nothing new.  And, Florida law allows the additional nickel per gallon to be used for transit as well as roads.

When Pasco County adopted the gas tax increase Connect Tampa Bay applauded it on their Facebook post of September 9 last year.  (see attached)  Now they are opposed.  For decades Sierra Club has consistently supported fuel taxes to pay for highways.

The Sierra Club is steadfast in our support of smart growth and protection of the environment.  In Hillsborough County this includes appropriate development policies and vastly increased transit options.  Sprawl is costly for the environment and costly for taxpayers.

We don’t need to wait until 2017 to begin raising money for transit and transportation, if the county commission chooses to act.  We can raise more than $100M annually for transit and transportation now, and it doesn’t require a referendum.  Hillsborough County needs traffic congestion relief that is certain, sure and soon.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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