After six years, Hillsborough County actually does something about transportation

After much debate, Hillsborough votes to put $600M toward projects without a tax hike.
Traffic on Interstate 275 in downtown Tampa slows to a crawl in January. Commissioners voted to dedicate $600?million over the next 10 years to fixing roads, bridges, sidewalks and intersections. WILL VRAGOVIC   |   Times
Traffic on Interstate 275 in downtown Tampa slows to a crawl in January. Commissioners voted to dedicate $600?million over the next 10 years to fixing roads, bridges, sidewalks and intersections.WILL VRAGOVIC | Times
Published September 9 2016
Updated September 9 2016

TAMPA — After a failed referendum in 2010 and two failed attempts to hold another in 2016, the six-year debate about how to pay for Hillsborough County's transportation needs reached a milestone achievement Thursday: Something actually passed.

County commissioners unanimously voted to dedicate $600 million over the next 10 years to fixing roads, bridges, sidewalks and intersections.

That won't require a tax increase; instead, commissioners moved to put $35 million more of the county budget toward transportation next year and increase that amount by $5 million each year for a decade.

The agreed-upon solution was so remarkably simple, it was put together in a couple of weeks by Commissioner Al Higginbotham. It passed Thursday just a few days after commissioners first laid eyes on it. Past proposals took months to draw up, expensive consultants and lots of public hearings.

But the approved plan is also well short of the amount needed to pay for Hillsborough's backlog of roadwork or to meet the demands of one of Florida's fastest growing counties. And it doesn't include additional commitments to transit.

The penny sales tax for transportation voters soundly rejected in 2010 and this year's failed attempt at a half-cent referendum both would have pumped billions of dollars into county coffers, including millions for buses and other transit — albeit at a cost many residents said they didn't want to pay.

Commissioner Kevin Beckner, speaking freely because he is set to leave at the end of the year due to term limits, told colleagues to not go out "beating its chest" after Thursday's vote.

"The passage of this policy is not mission accomplished, board members," Beckner said. "You've got a lot more work to do."

The decision was far more contentious than the final 7-0 vote indicated. It was reached after 100 minutes of vigorous debate.

Commissioner's chose Higginbotham's proposal over another from Commissioner Sandy Murman, which was supported by Commissioners Stacy White and Victor Crist. Her plan would have dedicated one-third of the growth in property taxes collected to raise about $741 million over 10 years to pay for transportation needs.

But financial and bond advisers cautioned that Murman's proposal could lead to a downgrade in the county's AAA bond rating. Putting transportation projects first, they said, could jeopardize debt payments.

"How any commissioner could ignore that fact is mind-boggling," Commissioner Ken Hagan said.

Higginbotham said his proposal — which he said he "didn't just fall off a log" and write — eliminated that concern by drawing from more revenue streams. It would take a super majority vote of five commissioners to change course, but included contingencies in case of an economic downturn.

"Brothers and sisters," he said, "we have been there."

It also included provisions for new quarterly budget reviews and new requirements for how county departments and commissioners can introduce new spending into the annual budget.

They still have to decide how to spend the money, but Higginbotham's plan required maintenance and safety improvements will be first in line.

Murman, though, worried Higginbotham's plan would turn into a "shell game." Without dedicating money first to transportation, she said, there was no guarantee future boards would oblige Thursday's decree.

"The new plan has more flexibility but it has less certainty," Murman said. "For me (transportation) is either a priority or it's not, it's a commitment or it's not. The new plan does not have the commitment or the priority."

Murman and Beckner successfully won a substantial change, however. Higginbotham's proposal could have drawn from revenues generated by new mobility fees charged to developers for new construction.

Commissioners approved those fees earlier this year. They were meant to be collected in addition to a sales tax increase. But that failed, and Beckner insisted the mobility fees should remain supplemental. In the first 10 years, those fees are expected to bring in about $100 million for transportation improvements.

Commissioners voted 7-0 to keep mobility fees separate.

With mobility fees, if commissioners stay the course, there will be $700 million new dollars for transportation by 2026.

It's not enough to end the transportation debate for long, Murman warned. She always envisioned her plan as a stopgap until the county completed a premium transit study that included a review of whether to buy CSX rail lines for a commuter rail system.

"This is a short-term solution," Murman said. "We all know where we're heading when you get the premium transit plan back. We have to go to the voters at some point with this robust, multimodul transit plant that's going to come in front of us."

"So get ready."

Contact Steve Contorno at scontorno@tampabay.com. Follow @scontorno.

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