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Hillsborough will forage for transit money

TAMPA — Hillsborough County commissioners agreed Wednesday to dust off past studies, and to do some fresh searching of their own, to see if there is a way to expand mass transit without raising taxes.

Commissioner Al Higginbotham, who made the suggestion, made clear he wasn't necessarily doing so to advance light rail after voters rejected a sales tax hike last month to pay for trains, buses and road work. Nor is he proposing to extend the existing half-cent sales tax, known as the Community Investment Tax, past its 2026 expiration to pay for mass transit, he said.

He said he mainly is looking for a fresh assessment of available money that can be put toward transportation upgrades generally, including roads and buses.

"All we want is to have our county look at these numbers and see if there was a stone unturned," Higginbotham said.

Commissioners voted unanimously to have their county administrator and attorney gather information assembled by various groups that looked at long-range transportation needs. That would include Hillsborough Area Regional Transit, a now-disbanded transportation task force, the metropolitan planning organization and the city of Tampa.

Higginbotham made the suggestion a couple of weeks ago after getting named chairman of the commission. He already has requested some of the information, but expressed frustration that he hasn't gotten it yet.

Earlier this week, he also cast a skeptical eye toward HART, the public bus agency, which the county gave $40 million nearly three years ago to pay for a handful of bus projects. He noted that little of the money had been spent and suggested maybe the county should take it back.

But HART chief executive officer David Armijo assured commissioners Wednesday that work is under way on some of the projects, including bus rapid transit lines. Much of the money will get spent next year, he said, particularly for a 17-mile rapid bus route from downtown Tampa north along Nebraska Avenue.

"We have continued to diligently move the project forward," he said.

Some of the money is going toward design work on rapid bus routes from downtown Tampa to the West Shore business district, and along Fletcher Avenue.

Some commissioners expressed a desire that the examination of existing money leave open the possibility of pursuing a smaller "demonstration" light rail line, perhaps linking downtown Tampa to the West Shore area. Higginbotham did not object to that, while making clear he is mainly trying to find out what money is available without yet targeting how it would be spent.

Bill Varian can be reached at (813) 226-3387 or varian@sptimes.com.

Hillsborough will forage for transit money 12/15/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 15, 2010 11:21pm]
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