TAMPA — The dream is still alive for those clamoring for light rail.
Hillsborough County officials have recommended a transportation plan built around a half-cent sales tax projected to generate $3.5 billion over 30 years. Though consultants suggest nearly two-thirds of that would be spent on building and maintaining roads, they've also given the city of Tampa the go-ahead to use its share of the funds as it sees fit.
For Mayor Bob Buckhorn, that means looking at transit options such as light rail and a revived downtown streetcar.
"Our issues are maintenance of existing roads and intersection improvements," he said, "but equally important is developing transportation alternatives and options.
"That's where rail is going to be a big factor for us, and the opportunity to use these dollars for a rail project."
The city is largely built out, so Tampa isn't looking to build roads. Instead, the city will likely spend a "high percentage" of its cut on transit, the mayor said, which could mean building a rail line linking downtown to the West Shore business district and Tampa International Airport.
It could also mean expanding and modernizing the underwhelming streetcar system. By adding new, enclosed, air-conditioned cars, extending the network and running on a more frequent schedule, an improved streetcar could fit nicely with Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik's $1 billion vision for redeveloping downtown.
A light-rail line has long been a dream for the mayor, transit advocates and the young professionals of the city. Getting 5 miles of track into the ground from downtown to the WestShore Plaza area could be the spark needed to expand the transit network across Hillsborough County.
"You have to build a starter line, for lack of a better term, that people can see and touch and ride and appreciate," Buckhorn said. "And what has happened in other jurisdictions, be it Denver or Phoenix, is that once they see it and they ride it and they realize the value of it, that communities start to clamor for it to come to their neighborhoods."
County Administrator Mike Merrill and consulting firm Parsons Brinckerhoff unveiled the proposed half-cent sales tax plan on Thursday. The policy leadership group, made up of city and county elected leaders, will decide whether to approve that plan on July 16. If it does, then the plan will go before the voters in a referendum in 2016.
When details of the half-cent plan first surfaced, the Sierra Club and Connect Tampa Bay, a transit advocacy group, were peeved. Their leaders said it would be hard for the groups to support a two-thirds, one-third split of funds.
Under the half-cent proposal, transit would get 36 percent of all revenue brought in by the sales tax. That comes out to about $42 million a year out of the $117.5 million that the new tax could generate annually for the county's transportation needs.
Transit needs to get close to half of the allocation for realistic change to occur, Connect Tampa Bay executive director Kevin Thurman said.
That might still be possible through the half-cent sales tax, which would allow each jurisdiction to decide how it wants to spend its share of tax dollars.
The plan assumed each city and the county would dedicate 10 percent of their share to transit, but those governments could invest whatever they want.
If the city used a significant chunk of its tax revenue on light rail or the streetcar, that could bump the overall share for transit above 40 percent. That's significantly better, Thurman said.
"If they would allow the city to spend more money on urban transit and not prevent them from building a rail line to West Shore," Thurman said, "then this becomes a serious thing I can see people enthusiastically supporting."
Temple Terrace and Plant City could use part of their portions to fund express buses and circulators. The county could invest in Bus Rapid Transit, where buses travel along dedicated lanes, sparing them from local traffic.
"People view that light rail, for now, is not viable in unincorporated Hillsborough County," said Bob Clifford of Parsons Brinckerhoff. "They do, though, think there are opportunities and support for it within the city of Tampa. … They believe the city has the things that are necessary for that kind of premium transit."
Although the plan is filled with all kinds of transit options, a majority of funds are going to new roads, intersection improvements, road maintenance, and bike and pedestrian improvements.
Just as the cities could choose to invest in transit, the county could pour its entire share of the sales tax — nearly $2 billion over 30 years — into roads.
"Each jurisdiction needs to have that flexibility," Buckhorn said. "For a lot of us, that made this proposal a lot more acceptable."
And even if Tampa were to spend all of its tax revenue on transit — a highly unlikely scenario — that wouldn't prohibit residents in the county from getting the much-needed road and intersection improvements they so desire, County Commission Chairwoman Sandra Murman said.
Residents who turned out to public meetings in Ruskin, Brandon and Apollo Beach made it clear that roads were their top priority. Under this plan, the county could start to build roads while clearing a $750 million backlog of maintenance issues.
"Each jurisdiction's going to be held accountable for what they do with their money," Murman said. "What they said they wanted, we are going to deliver."
Contact Caitlin Johnston at email@example.com or (813) 226-3401. Follow @cljohnst.