Defeat of light rail sales tax hobbles South Shore road projects

RUSKIN — When voters turned the thumbs down on a penny sales tax that would have funded light rail in Tampa, they also killed a funding source for more than $150 million in road improvements in the South Shore area.

With those potential dollars off the table, it could be years before the proposed projects come to fruition.

County commissioners have directed their staff to look for alternative funding, not only for light rail, but also for needed road projects, said Assistant County Administrator Lucia Garsys.

She said it's too soon to say whether any of the south county projects that would have derived sales tax revenue will benefit from that exercise.

In south Hillsborough, projects on the list include widening U.S. 301 from Riverview to Sun City Center, improvements to Interstate 75 interchanges at Riverview-Gibsonton and Apollo Beach, widening Big Bend Road, and bicycle lanes along 19th Avenue and Shell Point Road.

If voters had approved the tax, the county also would have kicked in money for a brand new I-75 interchange in the Ruskin-Apollo Beach area.

Melanie Morrison, executive director of the Ruskin SouthShore Chamber of Commerce, which supported the initiative, said the projects were not only needed to ease traffic but would have recharged south Hillsborough's economy by providing construction jobs and luring new businesses to the area.

"I think that we definitely see a loss, both in the long term and the short term," she said. "In the long term because of the transportation projects, and in the short term, the economic boost."

Garsys said the south county projects were earmarked for funding from the penny transit tax based on recommendations from the South Shore Roundtable, a group made up of representatives from various organizations in Ruskin, Apollo Beach, Sun City Center, Wimauma and Riverview.

Critics of the failed transit tax say the projects, though needed, were a ploy to build support for a tax that would have disproportionately favored Tampa.

"It was a way to, in my perspective, get people in south county to vote for the tax," said Jim Hosler, a former longtime Hillsborough County Planning Commission analyst who launched a failed bid for county commissioner this year.

Hosler helped found the South Shore Roundtable about 15 years ago. He said it's no substitute for government-sponsored public meetings to gather input.

"It was never meant to be a polling organization that the county government could come down and test the pulse of what south Hillsborough people want," he said. "But county government doesn't understand south Hillsborough all that well."

Fred Jacobsen, who represents the Ruskin Community Development Foundation on the South Shore Roundtable, said the county's Metropolitan Planning Organization sought the roundtable's input in drafting the list of road projects that were attached to the sales tax referendum.

"The general feeling was that the bulk of the money and benefits would certainly be going to help Tampa," Jacobsen said, noting that 75 percent of the sales tax revenue was earmarked for mass transit. Proposed rail routes would have shuttled people from Tampa International Airport and the University of South Florida neighborhoods to downtown Tampa.

He and others, including Jim Duffy of Sun City Center, a former roundtable member, said the proposal offered little improvement in public bus service in south Hillsborough, a need that community leaders have pressed for years.

Roundtable chairman Don Schings, however, said he was impressed with bus transportation projects that would have been funded. The roundtable did not take a position on the sales tax, he said, but transportation improvements are sorely needed in south Hillsborough.

"There are a lot of projects that we'd love to see down here, but the question is how to fund them," Schings said.

Morrison said South Shore might benefit from a regional approach to transportation funding. She noted that the Ruskin and Apollo Beach areas are snuggled between Tampa and Bradenton, and are within easy driving distance of St. Petersburg.

Some of the road projects on the sales tax list, such as widening Big Bend Road and part of U.S. 301 near Sun City Center, already are on a list of improvements to be funded by developers when new home sales and construction pick up.

County spokesman Steve Valdez said sales tax revenues would have made it possible to accelerate the projects, but developers eventually would have been required to reimburse the county for road costs once their proposed subdivisions reached fruition.

"That would not have taken the developer off the hook at all," Valdez said.

Others interviewed questioned why a new sales tax for road improvements was proposed when a significant portion of the half-cent Community Investment Tax is supposed to go to improve roads.

"And what did we get for it?" asked Sharon Calvert of Lutz, a staunch opponent of the transit tax who served as spokesperson for No Tax For Tracks. "Museums. Stadiums. Lots of sidewalks that nobody will ever walk on."

Calvert, who works in the Brandon area, said she knows how congested roads in eastern and southern Hillsborough can be during rush hours. Long-awaited improvements to Lithia-Pinecrest and Gornto Lake roads also were among projects that would have garnered funding from the transit sales tax.

But Calvert and others suggested that developing more user fees, such as toll roads, and making sure Hillsborough gets a fair share of gasoline tax money, would be a better funding solution than a sales tax.

Susan Green can be reached at hillsnews@sptimes.com.

Defeat of light rail sales tax hobbles South Shore road projects 01/06/11 [Last modified: Thursday, January 6, 2011 3:30am]

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