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Latest Hillsborough transportation plan leaves cities empty handed

Expanding the TECO Line Streetcar System was one possible use of money that would have been earmarked for Tampa from a countywide sales tax for transportation. The county commission rejected the tax hike and its alternative plan sends no money to Tampa or the county's other two municipalities -- Temple Terrace and Plant City. [Times file (2014)]

Expanding the TECO Line Streetcar System was one possible use of money that would have been earmarked for Tampa from a countywide sales tax for transportation. The county commission rejected the tax hike and its alternative plan sends no money to Tampa or the county's other two municipalities -- Temple Terrace and Plant City. [Times file (2014)]

TAMPA — City leaders who were invited to the table to discuss how Hillsborough County should fix its gridlock are likely to walk away from the conversation empty handed.

A proposal that Hillsborough commissioners are considering to pay for transportation needs doesn't include any guaranteed money for Tampa, Temple Terrace and Plant City.

Also left out is the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority, the agency that runs the county's bus system.

It's a reversal from a previous plan, which would have set aside more than half a billion dollars over the next decade for the three cities and HART.

"I'm tired of being left at the altar and I think I probably speak for all the municipalities," Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said. "This plan doesn't do anything for us."

Hillsborough County sought broad collaboration when it set out two years ago to form a plan to pay for the county's transportation woes by creating a Policy Leadership Group that included representatives from the three cities plus all seven county commissioners. It was a direct response to criticism that a 2010 referendum to raise the sales tax by a penny failed because its backers did not work with other elected leaders.

The leadership group split the plan into potential funding options and voted in November to propose a half-cent sales tax surcharge for 30 years. That would have raised $117 million a year for transportation, with nearly half set aside for HART and the three cities.

But only the county commission can place a sales tax referendum on the ballot and the panel twice rejected the sales tax on 4-3 votes. Had it passed, the proposal would have gone to voters in a referendum Nov. 8.

"We spent a lot of time doing that, and unfortunately they went a different direction," said Temple Terrace Mayor Frank Chillura. "I certainly thought it was something that would've helped our roadways. Any time there is something of that magnitude to come before a body, I think one of the best ways is to take it referendum and really that is democracy at its best."

Instead, county commissioners are weighing a new plan to dedicate one-third of any growth in property and sales taxes to transportation. If approved on Sept. 8, it would eventually raise about $800 million for road repairs and other fixes over the next decade.

None of that, though, is earmarked for HART or the three cities. However, Commissioner Sandy Murman, one of the architects of the new plan, has said city and transit authority leaders could ask the commission to help pay for a project each year when the county passes its budget.

"We'll have some pretty healthy revenues to give to projects like the streetcar and HART," Murman said. "I'm very supportive of helping the cities and HART as much as we can."

Murman, though, acknowledged that it could be a few years before the county can afford to distribute a lot of its new transportation money. Under the proposal, the county would make 2015 a baseline year. In subsequent years, as the county population grows and home values increase, one-third of any sales and property tax revenue collected that exceeds the 2015 benchmark would be set aside for transportation.

That strategy would produce about $17 million next year and $29 million in 2018, far short of a county maintenance backlog that runs in the hundreds of millions of dollars. It wouldn't produce more than $100 million, according to projections, until 2023.

Having to ask the county for money each year presents other challenges. Katharine Eagan, chief executive officer with HART, said it would be difficult to expand operations without a guarantee the money will be there next year to fund it.

Similarly, Eagan and Buckhorn said, it's unlikely the federal government will view those dollars as a dedicated revenue stream required to land federal grants for transit infrastructure.

"To get like Charlotte and these other cities, we're not talking a couple of dollars every year, we're talking about a significant investment," Eagan said.

But she added: "We will take every dollar we can get to help serve us better."

Buckhorn said he and St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman will ask the Legislature for the authority to put a sales tax referendum on the ballot for city voters to decide. It won't be an easy sell in Tallahassee, where Republicans dominate government, he said.

Murman expects the sales tax referendum will come up again, perhaps in four years, after HART completes a premium transit study for interconnectivity throughout the region. That includes studying whether to buy CSX train lines for a potential commuter rail.

By then, Murman expects voters will see that commissioners have reprioritized their own budget for transportation.

Meantime, Murman had another suggestion.

"The cities can do what we're doing too," she said. "They can take their revenues and dedicate it to transportation like we're doing."

Contact Steve Contorno at scontorno@tampabay.com. Follow @scontorno.

Latest Hillsborough transportation plan leaves cities empty handed 08/29/16 [Last modified: Monday, August 29, 2016 2:15pm]
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