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Transit activists unhappy with reported Hillsborough transit tax proposal

in The Bay and the 'Burg/Top Headlines by

Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill was briefing some members of the Hillsborough County Commission Wednesday afternoon, a day before he’ll unveil before the public his recommendations on how the county should address its huge transportation needs.

As first reported by the Tampa Tribune’s Mike Salinero, Merrill will propose that commissioners put a half-cent sales transit tax on the 2016 ballot, but with only 30 percent of those funds being allocated to mass transit. Sixty percent would be for building and rebuilding roads and bridges, and 10 percent to pedestrian and cycling trails.

“My concern is, I don’t want to do something for the sake of just doing it and not have it be enough to get anything done, and that troubles me,” said Commissioner Victor Crist.

Referring to what he says is at least an hour-and-a-half daily commute from New Tampa to his office in downtown Tampa, Crist says if the county is committed to plan, “Let’s damn well get in there and do it, and do it right, because if we don’t, and it doesn’t deliver a fix to the problem, people are going to be dissatisfied.”

For comparison sake, the 2010 Moving Hillsborough Forward one-cent transit tax proposal  was expected to bring in roughly $200 million a year, with 75 percent of that going to transit and 25 percent to rebuilding roads and bridges. That comes out to $150 million for transit.

The potential 2016 plan would reduce that amount drastically. Thirty percent from a half-cent sales tax broken down would translate to just $30 million being devoted to transit.

Pat Kemp, a member of the Sierra Club and a candidate for the County Commission District 6 seat next year, says the mix of how the potential funds would be allocated is already dissatisfying advocates of more transit options in the county like herself.

“I think it’s very disappointing,” she said, adding that while the Sierra Club will spend time reviewing the official proposal once it’s unveiled on Thursday, she believes such a road-heavy investment could make it untenable for the environmental organization to rally behind.

“Based on this report, it’s hard to see being supportive,” adds Brian Willis, a co-founder of the pro-transit advocacy group Connect Tampa Bay and another Democrat running for the County Commission District 6 seat next year. “From what you’ve told me, that doesn’t sound like a plan that solves any of the big problems that we’re facing as a region. Which is these mounting road maintenance costs and lack of transportation options.”

Kevin Thurman with Connect Tampa Bay says his group will also wait before the recommendations are made public before weighing in, but he says right now it’s hard to see any group in the county being supportive.

“How do you run a campaign that nobody supports?” he asks, saying he doesn’t believe any pro-transit group will rally behind what’s been reported so far.

Obviously, the art of what is possible seems to be a driving force behind the proposed recommendation — a half-cent sales tax vs. a full cent, and making the majority of the revenues from the tax going toward road projects, undoubtedly an issue more supported by residents outside the urban core of Tampa.

The 2010 Moving Hillsborough Forward proposal lost 58-42 percent countywide, though it was supported by a majority of voters in Tampa and Temple Terrace. Last fall’s Greenlight Pinellas suffered an even worse fate at the polls, 62-38 percent.

“What they promised with this process was that they were going to go around listening to the community and develop a plan, and then talk about how they fund different aspects,” Willis said. Instead, he calls the proposal a “moonshot approach.”

“If the number is at $30 million a year for transit, that’s great, that’s equal to what we get in ad valorem taxes. But it’s not enough to make it a more transformative transit system,” says Tampa City Councilman and HART board chairman Mike Suarez, who acknowledged that he had not seen the details of the proposal yet and wouldn’t until hours before Thursday’s meeting of the Policy Leadership Group, the organization of county lawmakers who have been charged with producing a transit plan for the community.

He says that the question that the Policy Leadership Group needs to ask is, if Tampa/Hillsborough County wants to attract major businesses to the region, don’t we need a more forward-looking way of handling transportation?

“How many choices are we going to be able to give people with this particular plan? I don’t know the answer to that,” Suarez said. “We do need to build more roads. But it shouldn’t be only that or significantly that. I think we need to look at how do we get transit more of a shot so we have more options and more freedom for people to have more choices?”

Hillsborough County allocated over $900,000 last year to pay consultant Parsons Brinckerhoff to facilitate public engagement to understand what county taxpayers priorities were in improving transportation options in the county. That led to a program called Go Hillsborough, which involved dozens of meetings throughout the vast county asking for community input.

Those public meetings  provided the public with the opportunity to place magnets on white boards to express their priority list. At one of the first such public meetings in West Tampa, Kemp expressed criticism, saying that such a “vague, open-ended presentation” wasn’t conducive to eliciting optimal results. She also said that most meetings were held in parts of the county where building roads would always be top priority.

Suarez disagrees. “I think that you’ve got to poll as many people across the county as possible and I think they did a fairly good job in trying to reach out to as many people as they could.”

He says he believes that the presentation should be the beginning of a public conversation  with the County Commission about whether it just wants to provide more buses, or believes in transit-oriented development.

“If we’re just looking at putting more buses on the road, this does it in a fairly moderate way,” the HART chair says. “If you’re looking to transform what it means for transit, it’s not really going to reach that point.”

“If all we do is go in there and resurface roads and it still takes you two hours to get to work, people are still going to be pissed,” adds Commissioner Crist.

The Policy Leadership Group convenes on Thursday at the County Center at 1:30 p.m.

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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