Hillsborough County gives first look at transit plan that would go before voters in 2016

Leaders in Hillsborough County today unveiled a detailed multi-billion dollar transportation plan for the county that would require asking the voters to approve a one-cent sales tax in 2016. The presentation comes two weeks before the same plan will go before members of the Transportation for Economic Development (TED) group, and after more than a year of meetings with various stakeholders that have evaluated the transportation options for the County.

If the referendum were to pass, it would raise $6.1 billion over 30 years time, or "less than 50 cents a day," says the narrator in a short video produced by county staff that will be distributed to the public. (A second, lengthier video was also presented.) County Administrator Mike Merrill emphasized that the extensive list of transit and non-transit needs are proposals and not the final end product. That will come after the draft plan is circulated throughout the community later this year. 

When asked if there was a grand financial total for all of the projects listed in the plan, Hillsborough County Chief Development & Infrastructure Services Administrator Lucia Garsys said the total for non-transit projects would be at $4.3 billion. She said she could not be so specific about the transit projects, instead giving an estimate of somewhere between $3.1 and $5.7 billion, not counting receiving grants or funding from other sources. 

Merrill acknowledged that those combined totals exceed the $6.1 billion that the penny sales tax would generate, which is why the County would hope to receive additional funds from revenues generated by the projects or grants. 

"It really is the nature of this not to be fully cooked. It really is focused more on getting input from the community on, do they like this project?" Merill asked, adding that he expects they will, since many of the projects in the plan have been on the proverbial shelf for awhile. "We're really at a stage where we just need to get feedback from the public before we can hone in on a total number and begin refining some of the revenue projections."

Any referendum going on the ballot in 2016 would need to be approved by the Hillsborough County Commission, all of whom are part of the TED group (also known as the Policy Leadership Group). The one and only transit tax referendum that went before Hillsborough voters in 2010 went down in a resounding defeat, but Commissioner Chair Mark Sharpe said he believes the plan as of now is already better thought out than the 2010 model.

"I'm very satisfied," Sharpe said. Along with former Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio, Sharpe was the leading public voice calling for the transit tax's approval in 2010. "What we have here is a very thorough, methodical plan which has a great chance of success... While not perfect, because none of us are perfect, it's as close to perfect as you can find," he gushed.

"Everyone kind of knows how difficult a change in culture is," Merrill said about the plan to convince county residents that the plan makes sense and is worth raising the sales tax in the county from seven cents to eight cents. "What we're talking about here is really changing the culture of how we travel and move around the county," admitting that nobody thinks that Hillsborough is really doing that well at that. "Getting folks here used to using transit is something that's going to take some coaxing and, I think, evolution."

The TED group proposed in late May that its membership take over the reigns from HART, the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit agency that is responsible for transit in the county and is the agency that directly receives federal funding. That has sparked controversy, with several members of the current HART board saying that the TED group doesn't have the authority to request such a change. 

Merrill acknowledged that reality today, but defended the proposal, saying, "It's not a coup d'état." He said the agency currently delivers "very good bus service," but said that its budget is $86 million, "but with this proposal, their budget goes to over $5 billion ... it takes a different leadership focus, it takes a different level of accountability," referring to the fact that the TED group that he wants to take over HART would consist of almost all public officials (A HART spokesperson later informed CL that the agency's $86 million budget over a 30-year span would equal $2.58 billion).

And Merrill hinted at how the board could ultimately be reconfigured, even if HART board members vote next to oppose the takeover, saying that the provisions of the charter for elected officials to replace current board members once their terms expire on the agency. "This isn't about kicking people off... this is different. You can see that. I think it's a good reason to consider a governance [change]."

The meeting was closed to the public.


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