Chamber poll: Hillsborough traffic is bad, but support for transportation tax is split

While many agree Hillsborough's roads are clogged, support for a solution is split.

Backed-up traffic in the northbound lanes of Interstate 275 in Tampa in January supports a recent Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce poll that found 97 percent of the 400 residents queried believe Hillsborough County's roads are either “extremely congested” or “somewhat congested.” WILL VRAGOVIC   |   Times
Backed-up traffic in the northbound lanes of Interstate 275 in Tampa in January supports a recent Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce poll that found 97 percent of the 400 residents queried believe Hillsborough County's roads are either “extremely congested” or “somewhat congested.”WILL VRAGOVIC | Times
Published April 11 2016
Updated April 12 2016

TAMPA — Hillsborough County residents agree on this much: Traffic is bad.

Ninety-seven percent of the 400 residents queried in a recent Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce poll believe the county is either "extremely congested" or "somewhat congested."

"The overwhelming number of respondents say there's something that needs to be done about transportation," said chamber president and CEO Bob Rohrlack. "That's huge."

But are those same residents willing to vote for a half-cent sales tax hike — like the one the Hillsborough County Commission is mulling — to pay for transportation improvements? That's much harder to discern.

According to the poll, support floated between 47 and 54 percent, depending on whether respondents were given arguments for or against the tax hike. The first survey, before they were told anything about transportation, showed support at 49 percent.

Those levels of support, however, were muddied by the poll's 5 percent margin of error.

"Support is split," Rohrlack said, "and with the margin of error it could be over the threshold to pass or under the threshold to pass. That's why there's a lot of education that needs to go on."

The commission is poised to vote this month on whether to put the Go Hillsborough sales tax referendum on the November ballot. If voters approve the half-cent tax, it would raise about $117 million a year.

The Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority would get 25 percent of that, while the county and cities would share the rest. The commission is split 3-3 on the issue. The deciding vote appears to be Commissioner Victor Crist.

The chamber released a handful of poll results Friday. But on Monday, the chamber released the full poll, which was conducted by SEA Polling & Strategic Design of Sarasota.

Here are some demographics: People between the ages of 35 and 49 constituted 34 percent of those polled. Just 14 percent were ages 18 to 34, while the rest were those 50 or older.

Politically, 37 percent described themselves as "moderate." Those "somewhat conservative" to "very conservative" were 37 percent, while 22 percent were "very liberal" to "somewhat liberal."

One of the poll's most surprising results was when it asked residents whether they were aware of the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office "investigating text messaging between county officials related to the transportation referendum." Only 22 percent said yes.

While the sheriff's report found no criminal wrongdoing, the fallout has consumed county leaders and Go Hillsborough's most vocal critics. Yet, the vast majority of those polled said they don't recall hearing anything about the investigation.

There were some signs of potential support for the tax.

Asked whether they would be willing to pay an extra $1.28 a week in a transportation tax, 61 percent said they would. Eighty-eight percent said improving Hillsborough's transportation system is a priority. The county's roads, according to 52 percent, were "not so good" to "poor." However, 42 percent said the roads were in "good" condition.

The poll asked people to gauge the most effective statements in support of the tax: Hillsborough County will add 500,000 people in the next 25 years (82 percent); it will get thousands of cars off the roads (80 percent); lack of a modern transportation system hurts business recruitment (72 percent); fixing traffic has bipartisan support (76 percent); and bus rapid transit (BRT) is a cost-effective alternative to rail (68 percent).

Respondents were also read statements opposing the transportation tax and asked to gauge how persuasive those were: It's "unfair" for taxpayers to pay for transportation when developers have gotten off "scot-free" (79 percent); politicians "waste" tax increases on "sweetheart" deals (76 percent); taxpayers could get stuck with escalating costs amid falling ridership (75 percent); and tax increases will hurt seniors and working families (72 percent).

Under the Go Hillsborough plan, 60 percent of the first 10 years of the tax would go to roads. That dovetails with the desires of the residents polled.

"Right now, people want to see road improvements," Rohrlack said.

Will the poll finally persuade the chamber to take a stand for or against Go Hillsborough? Rohrlack said the chamber will wait for the commission to vote on an actual plan (two members have proposed their own plans) before making its own decision.

"We've said it before: There are as many solutions to this issue as there are cars clogging the roads," he said. "So this is something we've all got to come together on and work through it as a community."