TAMPA — Transit advocates are expected to speak out today when Hillsborough County commissioners discuss how to spend $600 million set aside for transportation projects.
Their problem with the plan? There's no money in it for public transportation, including buses, rail or ferries.
Instead, the proposed project list is focused on safety improvements at intersections and schools, road resurfacing and new and wider roads to relieve congestion in unincorporated Hillsborough.
Commissioners who were bombarded with angry emails this week are wondering why people are surprised.
The commission voted months ago to reject a half-cent sales tax surcharge for transportation that would have brought in $3.5 billion over 30 years and directed hundreds of millions of dollars to transit projects in Tampa and the county. The board is now looking for ways to pay for maintenance needs and road fixes out of its existing budget.
In September, they voted to set aside $600 million over the next 10 years — starting with $35 million in 2017 and increasing the contribution by $5 million every year for a decade. At the time, commissioners said it wouldn't be enough to fund transit expansion, which is expensive and typically needs long-term commitments to get the federal government to pitch in.
It would be up to future boards to weigh whether to expand transit, commissioners said, and would likely come after the completion of a comprehensive transit study currently under way.
"It was pretty clear in that ordinance language that we're talking about a road-intensive plan," said Commissioner Stacy White.
Commissioner Les Miller took issue with some of the criticism, saying it came from the same groups and people — including the Tampa Bay Group Sierra Club and former Commissioner and lobbyist Ed Turanchik — who worked to defeat the half-cent sales tax plan because the transit component wasn't bold enough.
"If we had voted for the half-cent sales tax we would've had money for transit and it went down the tubes," Miller said. "It never ceases to amaze me the conversations we're having around this."
But Kent Bailey, chairman of the local Sierra Club, said many residents still think there should be a commitment to transit even in a scaled-back proposal.
"I certainly hope that the County Commission is not taking the position that they should punish citizens for asking for public transportation because the commission didn't get what they wanted," Bailey said.
Those mobilizing on social media and writing commissioners have complained that the public hasn't had time to inspect the proposed project list. Some accused commissioners of attempting to ram through the spending plan and of bypassing the Hillsborough Planning Commission, the entity that reviews changes to the county's infrastructure blueprint.
The staff has recommended commissioners waive their board rules, which requires giving the Planning Commission 10 days to review any amendments.
However, the Planning Commission still conducted the review and found the changes consistent with the county's comprehensive plan.
Because the list of road projects is nearly identical to one commissioners unanimously approved this year when it was still considering the sales tax surcharge, Planning Commission executive director Melissa Zornitta said that her staff didn't need 10 days to review it.
"They were all projects we've been involved in vetting either through Go Hillsborough or other previous planning efforts," Zornitta said. "So there weren't any surprises there."
The project list is largely centered on unincorporated Hillsborough with relatively little to improve city roads. About $56 million is expected to go toward projects in Tampa.
"It's disappointing," Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said, "but entirely predictable."
Contact Steve Contorno at [email protected] Follow @scontorno.