Hillsborough gets ball rolling on making transit functional again

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Hillsborough gets ball rolling on making transit functional again

County Commissioners in Hillsborough have a big decision to make this month.

They have to choose between a half-cent sales tax increase that would fund transit projects throughout the county, and a hike in the fees the county charges developers for their impact on infrastructure. Or, we suppose, they can opt to sit back and wait for flying, driverless cars.

Although they didn't officially vote on anything, they heard from County Administrator Mike Merrill Wednesday on a few of the concrete details of both proposals.

The tax hike, which voters would weigh in on in the November election, would fund a 30-year plan to improve roads and mass transit throughout the county, and entities including Hillsborough Area Regional Transit (HART), the county itself and the cities of Tampa, Plant City and Temple Terrace would take proportional shares of the $1.17 billion expected to be generated each decade.

“This is much more than a ten-year plan," Merrill said. "Our needs are significant.”

The other option would be to shift the burden of the cost of keeping up with a growing population the congestion it causes to those who are kind of causing it, namely developers. Such an effort would not require a referendum.

If the idea of funding transportation-related projected in Hillsborough via a sales tax hike rings a bell, you get a gold star.

In 2010, Hillsborough County voters rejected a proposal to boost the sales tax there by one percent, which would have made it the highest-taxed county in the state.

It was during the Tea Party wave, a time when enraged exurban and rural voters decried any increase in taxes. They also rejected the proposal because it included a light rail line that may have run from USF to downtown Tampa, areas that obviously don't serve them.

This time around, rail is not specifically mentioned in the proposal, and the entities that share in the revenue would be able to determine which projects would go in which jurisdictions. Temple Terrace, for example, could choose to widen its roads while Tampa, if it so choose, could opt for light rail if they wanted, assuming it only used its own money.

Despite some major differences between the 2010 proposal and Go Hillsborough, commissioners who support the proposal sought to set the record straight Wednesday.

“Since there's been so much misinformation promulgated by a select few critics, I think I'd just like to point out the differences between the 2010 referendum and Go Hillsborough," said Commissioner Ken Hagan. "A light rail system was a key component of a 2010 referendum ... in fact, that was a primary project, if you recall. And Go Hillsborough, there is no light rail system and in fact, if I'm not mistaken, two-thirds of the revenue are targeted for roads. Secondly, in 2010, the proposal was for a one-cent sales tax referendum, which would have made us the highest-taxed county in the state. This proposal is a half-cent.”

Commissioner Al Higginbotham, one of three commissioners who have previously opposed posing the transit tax question to voters, called the proposal "an example of home rule."

A handful of members of the public spoke ahead of the discussion.

Activist (and occasional CL contributor) George Niemann said the developers should shoulder the bulk of the cost, but probably won't.

“Will the proposed mobility fees make growth pay for themselves? They most certainly will not,” he said. “Will the transportation deficit continue to grow under the plan that's being proposed? It certainly will. Under this new plan, will the taxpayer get stuck paying most of the impacts every time this commission approves growth? You bet they will. Citizens beware: the developer freebies will continue with this plan while they urge us to tax ourselves more to make up for the difference.”

Another resident, Sun City Center activist Ken Roberts, tried to accuse Merrill of electioneering because he was allegedly pushing a ballot measure.

Commission Chair Les Miller condemned his comments.

“Mr Merrill does not push the red and green buttons up here. It's the seven of us," Miller said, adding that Roberts' comments were "attempted character assassination,” “asinine” and “shouldn't have been said.”

The commission will hold another meeting Wednesday, April 13, during which they plan to set public hearing dates for the both the impact fee proposal and Go Hillsborough (Apr. 26 and Apr. 27, respectively). They're seeking public input at both (bring popcorn).

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