TAMPA — The chairman of the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit board of directors said Wednesday that he thinks time has run out on the chance to get a referendum on new taxes for county transportation projects on the 2016 ballot.
HART Chairman Mike Suarez said he doesn't think enough progress has been made to engage voters and identify projects for a referendum that has a chance of passing by then. The ballot question would create a new countywide sales tax to provide funding for road and transit projects.
"If they're looking at 2016, I think the boat has sailed on that," said Suarez, who also serves on the Tampa City Council and on a countywide group of elected officials focusing on transportation issues. "There's no way we're going to put out a referendum and get the kind of synergy that Greenlight (Pinellas) has."
Pinellas County voters will decide a similar referendum in November that, if passed, would implement a sales tax to expand transit services.
Planning for that referendum began in 2009, Suarez said. Hillsborough, he counters, has dedicated less time to its own referendum and does not have the same community involvement that Pinellas does.
"I think we need more time," Suarez said during a meeting with the Tampa Bay Times' editorial board. "2018, I think, would be better for us."
The last time a tax-for-transit referendum was before Hillsborough voters was in 2010, and it was soundly defeated.
Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, a proponent of a 2016 referendum, said the county is facing a much different climate than it did then.
"2010 was a bad year politically for anything progressive," he said. "It was a difficult time to propose any additional tax increase, regardless of how much sense it made. 2016 is very different. People are ready and expect the leadership to provide some transit options."
Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill said the policy leadership group, which includes Suarez, "absolutely will be ready for a referendum by 2016." The policy group recently voted to approve a larger transit role for HART — a move that Suarez was resistant to, citing the lack of authority for the group to make such a decision.
Merrill said he was not aware of any other members of the group, which includes county commissioners and elected officials of the county's three cities, that share Suarez's concerns about the 2016 referendum.
Suarez's comments come on the heels of an announcement by the transportation leadership policy group to postpone a key meeting, originally scheduled for today, until late August.
The policy group was supposed to finalize a list of proposed transportation projects that could include rail, expanded bus routes and roadway improvements. The group cited scheduling conflicts as the cause of the postponement.
"It's incredibly frustrating," said Kevin Thurman, executive director of the transit advocacy group Connect Tampa Bay. "They've been working for 15 months, and there aren't a lot of transit solutions proposed. And now they've delayed for two months just five days before they were supposed to present it."
He said, though, he thinks there is still plenty of time to get a plan together over the next year.
The next meeting of the policy group has been rescheduled for Aug. 12. This means the group won't talk about a new tax until the final two weeks of the primary campaign season, which includes candidates running for two County Commission seats.
"There are scheduling challenges during the summer, we all recognize that, but we still have two years before 2016," Buckhorn said. "I think two years is plenty of time to do the work and to make the case to the public that there are significant benefits to a robust and vastly improved transportation network."
Caitlin Johnston can be reached at [email protected].