Hillsborough, Pinellas leaders wonder if twin transportation tax hikes will work

Leaders consider if Hillsborough and Pinellas can combine for a winning initiative.

Published May 4 2016
Updated May 4 2016

The Tampa Bay region has seen three separate transportation funding initiatives fail since 2010 — two in Hillsborough County and one in Pinellas County.

The most recent was just a week ago, when Hillsborough commissioners killed off a half-cent sales tax to pay for much-needed roadwork and transit projects there.

Maybe it's time to try something together, Pinellas County administrator Mark Woodard said Tuesday.

In a meeting with the Tampa Bay Times editorial board, Woodard said he's already had conversations about it with his counterpart in Hillsborough, county administrator Mike Merrill.

The idea is the two county governments would ask their respective voters in the same election year to approve a half cent sales tax increase that would finance a transportation plan that improves services and infrastructure locally and also spans Tampa Bay, finally linking Hillsborough and Pinellas counties.

That kind of campaign, Woodard said, could finally lead to a breakthrough.

"The solution to transportation in this area is a regional approach," he said. "A regional plan that could be brought forward to the voters on both sides of the bay at the same time that shows that partnership, that shows that regional approach to this regional problem, and has common branding and … (a) marketing campaign paid for by the private sector, I think that's the solution."

Later this month, both county commissions will get together informally in Tampa for a rare meeting, Woodard added, with an eye toward more collaboration in the future.

Talk of another transportation initiative may feel especially premature in Hillsborough County. Political tensions there remain high after a fractured board voted 4-3 last week against a 30-year, half-cent sales tax referendum during a contentious late-night meeting.

Hillsborough County spokeswoman Liana Lopez would not discuss, or even confirm, Woodard's conversation with Merrill.

"A regional approach may be a beneficial conversation in the future," she said, "but that would be determined by our board at the appropriate time."

But one of the key "no" votes last week, Commissioner Victor Crist, said Woodard's vision is the kind of approach he could get behind. The next initiative could also incorporate the feasibility assessment of converting CSX rail lines into a regional commuter train service and other transit options that will be studied in the coming years, he said.

"To be able to connect our rail station downtown to the airport, to downtown Clearwater and downtown St. Pete and to the beach is where we need to go in the future," Crist said. "If we've got a plan where Hillsborough and Pinellas are on board, now we take that to the feds, we take that to the state, we take to our local voters, and you start to build grass roots momentum to the bigger picture."

Tampa public relations executive Bill Carlson, who helped rally against Go Hillsborough, agreed. Activists would embrace a regional transportation strategy more than Hillsborough's recently defeated transportation plan, which he said lacked vision.

Carlson's firm, Tucker Hall, initially worked on the failed Greenlight Pinellas tax referendum in 2014 — which asked Pinellas voters to raise the sales tax 1 cent for transportation projects — before someone else took over the campaign.

"I think it's a terrific idea and we should pursue it with vigor," Carlson said. "That's the kind of the leadership we needed all along in Hillsborough."

Woodard also envisions that the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority and the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority would merge in the near future to create one entity that serves the entire Tampa Bay area.

It's not the first time someone has kicked the tires on that idea in recent years. Lawmakers in Tallahassee have asked the two transit authorities to explore a merger. Studies have said cost savings would be modest, at best. But members of HART's board have balked at such talk in the past.

Brad Miller, CEO of PSTA, said his agency supports a merger.

"We think there are benefits," Miller said. "We think it could make us more competitive for state and federal dollars."

But both Miller and HART CEO Katharine Eagan said no matter where jurisdiction lies, more money is needed to expand programs beyond the existing bus services in both counties.

Eagan said if a conversation about a regional transit authority makes that happen, then she's open to it.

"You can combine us, but we're still so underfunded so it doesn't get you that extra service," she said.

In the meantime, Woodard suggested that the two counties should explore a high-end, high-frequency bus route that connects Carillon in Pinellas to Tampa's Westshore business district or Tampa International Airport. A "demonstration project" like that could convince voters in the future to increase the sales tax further to support more cross county transit projects, he said.

"I think people generally will support something if they see that it works," Woodard said. "And they see that government is doing what they said they are going to do."

Contact Steve Contorno at scontorno@tampabay.com and Tracey McManus at tmcmanus@tampabay.com.

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