Hillsborough leaders wonder how transit will improve after transportation tax fails

They all agreed that more transit funding is desperately needed, and soon.

click to enlarge Today, the Board of Directors for HART discussed how to fund transit after a tax referendum failed at the ballot box. - Hillsborough County
Hillsborough County
Today, the Board of Directors for HART discussed how to fund transit after a tax referendum failed at the ballot box.

At today’s Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Board of Directors meeting, local leaders discussed next steps after a transportation sales tax failed at the ballot box last night.

Had the 1% sales tax passed, the money would’ve been used to improve roads and public transportation across Hillsborough County, which has one of the worst transit systems in the country—largely because it is underfunded.

The tax has been a matter of contention since 2018, when voters approved it. But in 2021, the Florida Supreme Court sided with Hillsborough County Commissioner Stacy White who challenged the constitutionality of the tax. The ruling prevented roughly $500 million already collected by the tax from being used to improve roads and transit.

This year, another lawsuit attempted to stop the reintroduction of the measure from even heading to the ballot. That suit is currently in the Second District Court of Appeals, so voters were allowed to weigh in on Election Day.
The vote was close, with the proposed referendum seeing 49% voting yes and 51% voting no.

During today’s meeting, local leaders, including Commissioner Pat Kemp explained the urgent need for transit funding, and wondered where it could come from now that the vote failed.

“This is not HART’s fault,” said Kemp at today’s meeting, “But we are the most underfunded transit system in the nation for a metro area this size, bar none. Not by little bit, not by a small amount, but by major, major, amounts for different historical reasons.”

Kemp pointed out that yesterday’s vote against the tax was close, and that she believes a large portion of the county understands the urgent need to fund roadways and transit.

“Hillsborough County seems to be, in many ways, pretty aware of that [transit] need and ready to come to it, but I don't know if the opportunity will be there again anytime soon,” she said.

Even if the vote had passed, the referendum would’ve had to make it through the Second District Court of Appeals. In October, a Hillsborough judge had ruled that the ballot language was misleading, and county commissioners appealed that ruling to the higher court.
During the meeting, HART’s CEO Adelee Le Grand said that after the failure of the referendum, the organization needs to keep looking for other sources of revenue.

“The question is for all of us, how are we going to work collectively to find opportunities to generate revenue in the county?” Le Grand said. “So, you know, I would say the primary approach and focus would be to work with you [county commissioners], as the policy setting entity, to find opportunities.”

Le Grand went on to say that the good news is that HART currently has funding to continue to provide the same level of service that they’re providing today.

“The bad news is the level of service that we're providing today needs to be improved,” she said.

Over the next couple of months, HART is going to be “very aggressive” in finding ways to increase revenue to make the local bus service more efficient, Le Grand said.

County Commissioner Kimberly Overman—who lost her election last night to Republican opponent Joshua Wostal—said that the shift in power on the commission might mean that the transit referendum will not come back to the table.

“Given yesterday's election, you're going to have a different set of board members sitting here,” Overman said. “And more than likely, those board members that are sitting on the board of commission will not be bringing a referendum in for additional sales tax, given their positions on taxation.”

Wostal’s campaign website rails against the sales tax.

“Nowhere is the county’s addiction to tax hikes more outrageous than the additional 1% transit tax the county illegally imposed in 2018 to pay for infrastructure in Tampa, despite the fact that only 26% of the county’s population lives in the city,” the website reads.

Mariella Smith, another advocate for transportation improvements, also lost her election to Republican Opponent Donna Cameron Cepeda. On her website, Cepeda says that she’s against any new taxes. She’s also against what she calls the “Transgenderism Agenda” and is anti-abortion—her website says that life starts at “the moment of conception.”
Like Cepeda, Wostal also wants to fix roads instead of prioritizing public transit, claiming that the former commissioners wanted to “force everyone onto public transportation.” Both Cepeda and Wostal want to use the county’s current budget to address fixing roads.

HART Board Representative Gil Schisler, who currently sits on Temple Terrace City Council but also lost his election last night, said during the meeting that he hopes whoever sits on the board next realizes the importance of public transit.

He pointed out that in other major cities, mass transit is something that people can count on. “I come from Philadelphia, there was never a question about the buses,” he said. “We need the funding sources, be they Ad Valorem, be they sales tax, or grants and partnerships.”

Schisler said that the board has to find those funding sources, but that it’s complicated, especially with the failing of the tax referendum. He added that the board needs to work with the new commissioners who will be on HART’s board to find the funding.

“We'll get there because it's the right thing to do, for these services well needed throughout our community,” he said.

Last night after the loss, All For Transportation, a local movement that advocates for transit improvements, said it was unsure about what comes next.

“All for Transportation started with one simple mission – to give the residents of Hillsborough County a voice in the future of their community,” Tyler Hudson and Christina Barker, AFT co-founders wrote. “Voters used that voice in 2018 to resoundingly demand action and many worked tirelessly alongside us to keep fighting toward our common goal – a transportation system that is safe, reliable, and equitable.”

AFT declined to comment further today. But the group’s passion is not diminished.

“The prospects for a better transportation future are not defeated but only deferred," AFT wrote.

About The Author

Justin Garcia

Justin Garcia previously wrote for the USA Today Network, The Economic Hardship Reporting Project, Scalawag Magazine, and various other news outlets. When he's not writing, Justin likes to make music, read, play basketball and spend time with loved ones. 

Scroll to read more Tampa Bay News articles


Join Creative Loafing Tampa Bay Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.