TAMPA — Not so long ago, fixing Hillsborough County's often clogged transportation network was the top priority of commissioners and many civic leaders.
So it's notable that the budget recommendation in the final stages of vetting by commissioners calls for wholesale postponing of traffic improvements and a variety of other building projects.
Sales tax revenue that was rising faster than expected just a few years ago — giving commissioners hope of making a dent in the county's transportation backlog — has tanked. So a plan to fast-track up to $500 million in sales taxes just four years ago has all but been shelved.
County Administrator Mike Merrill's budget proposal, which commissioners will massage and pass this month, calls for delaying $128 million in capital projects for at least two years. More than half — $76 million — had been planned for roadwork. Money to fix recurring flood problems, spruce up some parks and build a soccer complex also will be put off.
"The main reason is the decrease in sales tax collections," Merrill said.
The county pays for things like road work largely by taking out loans to pay for them over the long term with annual sales tax collections. But Merrill likened the county's predicament to that of a family with a mortgage, car payments and a couple of credit cards.
Like that family that sees its income shrinking or flat as costs for everything rise, the county is not in a position to apply for a Best Buy credit card for a new flat-screen television and computer tablet.
In the county's case, the plan this year had been to sink money into less glamorous, fun things relating to transportation. For instance, close to $16 million was to be spent on technology to improve signal timing and other steps to help traffic flow more smoothly through chronic bottlenecks.
The county also wanted to allot more than $32.4 million for construction at major intersections, for adding turn lanes, lengthening existing ones and the like. Work will be delayed at the intersections of Gunn Highway and W Linebaugh Avenue, and N Himes Avenue and W Lambright Street in northern Hillsborough, John Moore and Lumsden Road in Brandon, and others.
Ongoing work to widen Linebaugh between Race Track Road and Countryway Boulevard, and Lutz-Lake Fern Road from the Suncoast Expressway to Dale Mabry Highway also will slow.
Only a few years ago plans for that roadwork had been accelerated. County Commissioner Ken Hagan had formed a task force to identify ways to nibble at billions of dollars worth of backlogs in road building needs.
The task force concluded that sales taxes were healthy enough to speed up some projects. The widenings, intersection fixes and traffic signal timing were all seen as ways of using limited dollars to get the most out of existing roads choked by surrounding development.
Three years later, collections of sales, property and other taxes have fallen.
"The reality is, over the past three years our budget has dropped over a billion dollars," Hagan said of the county's current $3 billion budget plan for next year. "The priority hasn't diminished. We just have to operate within our fiscal restraints and limitations."
Following Hagan's task force recommendations, some elected officials began pushing a plan to raise the county's sales tax to pay for more roadwork and commuter rail. Community leaders thought there was consensus among the public that easing Hillsborough's traffic congestion was its top priority as well, but voters soundly rejected the tax hike last fall.
In the meantime, money from existing sales taxes started waning.
"The amount we thought we'd have (in order) to make a small investment in our transportation landscape evaporated," county Commissioner Mark Sharpe said. "The shame is we just don't have the resources now for those types of projects."
Merrill said he is looking at ways to bring in money for specific areas where transportation fixes are most sorely needed. They typically would involve setting up special taxing districts in those areas or assessing fees to developers.
County Public Works Director John Lyons noted that work is proceeding on some fronts. The widening of Bruce B. Downs Boulevard near Tampa Palms and Boyette Road near Riverview is continuing, and the Gornto Lake Road extension connecting State Road 60 to the Westfield Brandon mall in east Hillsborough is nearing completion.
And while money for drainage projects has dried up considerably, work is continuing near University Mall to address chronic flooding in surrounding neighborhoods.
"We're not shutting the place down," Lyons said.
Bill Varian can be reached at (813) 226-3387 or [email protected]