If Hillsborough transportation tax drops to 10 years, it could lose its biggest supporter
TAMPA — Getting to four votes on a sales tax hike to fund transportation in Hillsborough County has proven difficult (to say the least), and commissioners in favor of that option continue to tinker with the duration of the surcharge in the hopes of reaching a majority.
Three commissioners who voted against half-cent sales tax increases of 20 and 30 years last month — Sandy Murman, Victor Crist and Al Higginbotham — are lukewarm, or at best undecided, about the latest iteration: Asking voters to approve a 15-year tax in a November referendum. (Commissioner Stacy White, the fourth commissioner to vote no on April 27, opposes any sales tax increase at this time.)
Murman told the Tampa Bay Times that 15 years was still too long for her and instead floated a 10-year proposal. Her logic being that commissioners approved a 10-year, $905 million list of transportation projects last month, so the tax should match that duration.
“I don’t know how we can consider more than 10 years,” Murman said.
Commissioners will hold a public hearing June 9 on the 15-year plan, the 10-year plan or really any transportation tax plan they come up with, and then vote. If a new tax is approved, it will be put on the November ballot so that residents can have their say.
But a 10-year proposal would lose the support of one of the most vocal and consistent advocates of a transportation sales tax: Commissioner Ken Hagan.
“I would support five before I supported 10,” he told the Times.
A 10-year tax would mean the elimination of almost all transit projects like new buses, extending downtown Tampa's street car and establishing a ferry to connect south county to MacDill Air Force Base, according to a presentation by county staff. Those transit projects rely on federal grants that require a long-term funding source to secure.
With a 10-year tax, the county can fix potholes, provide some congestion relief and improve safety at some intersections and sidewalks, staff wrote. Commissioners will see the presentation, which looks at what a surtax of five, 10, 15, 20, and 30 years could accomplish, at Thursday's meeting.
At 5 years, the county could address some of its road maintenance backlog.
But at least with a 5-year proposal, Hagan said, commissioners could pay for maintenance projects while waiting for the results of several in-depth transit studies on the horizon, including the conversion of CSX lines into commercial rail. Then, the county can go back to voters at the next presidential election in four years to ask for a more long-term tax with a greater understanding of the county's needs and the possibilities for addressing them.
Not that Hagan’s enthusiastic about a 5-year proposal, either. He still sees the need for a long-term funding solution to pay for the county’s many transportation needs and to keep up with the future needs that will come with projected growth in Tampa and the rest of Hillsborough (and, technically, the 20- and 30-year tax hikes are still on the table).
Settling for something shorter, Hagan said, is just kicking the question to a future board while the maintenance backlog gets bigger and bigger. And, he added, it's not as though the tax's opponents will go away.
That echoes the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce, which on Thursday implored commissioners to reconsider a tax of at least 20 years.
“Rather than allowing residents to vote on an option of at least 20 years, the Board of County Commissioners is now considering a 15-year option,” the chamber said in its statement. “This is an insufficient response to our community’s transportation needs and we urge our County Commissioners to revisit their prior actions and support the option of a half-cent sales tax for a duration of at least 20 years.
“Voters should have the right to make the decision on the funding of our future transportation options and our elected officials have the responsibility of giving them a viable solution.”
Hagan said he doesn't see how a 10-year tax solves the county's transportation problems.
“We need a transformative transportation plan,” Hagan said. “And in order for that to occur, transit and multi module options must be an element of our plan.”