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Hillsborough leaders set to pursue transit tax vote, despite defeats elsewhere

TAMPA — Hillsborough County leaders are determined to soldier on with their own tax-for-transportation referendum, but failed efforts to pass similar measures Tuesday in Pinellas and Polk counties are raising questions about how and when.

For months, some have challenged whether 2016 would be the right year to hold the vote, and others have debated just how specific the wording on the ballot should be.

Nearly all the proponents agreed that success from their neighbors would buoy efforts here. But now that tax-for-transportation measures in both counties were overwhelming defeated — each by more than 20 percentage points — the details of a potential Hillsborough vote are becoming hazier.

"I think that they're going to have to look at all of these different alternatives: more specificity, less specificity, do they include a rail component, how much is dependent on an improved bus system," Tampa Bay Partnership president Stuart Rogel said. "They're going to have to look at all those things and come up with the right mix."

Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill said it will be useful to analyze the Pinellas and Polk initiatives but their election results don't mean a course change for Hillsborough.

"We want to, obviously, at some point understand what some of the dynamics were," Merrill said Wednesday. "But we're a different county. We have different needs. And, frankly, we're approaching this differently."

Others, including County Commissioner Al Higginbotham and Hillsborough Area Regional Transit chairman Mike Suarez, echoed Merrill's sentiment, adding that Hillsborough is on the right path and has learned from the failed sales tax initiatives.

"It just means you have to work all that much harder, but we're very confident," County Commissioner Mark Sharpe said. "These measures rarely win the first time out. I'm very confident that 2016 is going to be a very good year."

The county has invested substantial money into the effort, including more than $300,000 in the past 18 months that went to research, studies and outreach by consultants Herb Marlowe, Public Resources Advisory Group and AECOM. More than $900,000 will go to the consulting firm Parsons Brinckerhoff to build a transportation plan by March 2015.

One option being considered is to try for a citywide — rather than a countywide — referendum, although that would require legislative action. Both Greenlight Pinellas and Hillsborough's transportation initiative in 2010 were approved by voters in the respective county's largest city, but stomped by voters elsewhere.

A Tampa referendum could allow light rail to connect downtown with the Westshore area and the airport. Rogel said that although a successful effort in Tampa wouldn't yield as much money as a countywide referendum, it would allow construction to begin and provide momentum.

"I think that's part of the challenge, being able to get something going, wherever it may be, so people can see the benefits of having really effective and successful transit," Rogel said.

Over the past two years, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn has asked legislators to consider a bill that would allow Florida's largest cities to hold city-only transit referendums. Currently, sales tax referendums must be countywide.

The idea was supported by the Urban Partnership, which is composed of the mayors of Tampa, St. Petersburg, Orlando, Miami, Hialeah, Jacksonville and Fort Lauderdale. The idea was a top priority for Buckhorn in 2013 and a lesser priority this year. But it never picked up a legislative sponsor.

Buckhorn said that during the 2015 session he'll focus most of his energy on trying to win funding for a new University of South Florida medical school building in downtown. But he is not abandoning the city referendum idea.

"We will keep it on our agenda of big-city mayors," he said.

But Merrill said he prefers to keep the conversation centered on progress the county is making.

"I think we're actually moving in a good path here, and we don't really need to talk about cities taking their own action," Merrill said. "It's not what the community needs. It needs a comprehensive, integrated solution."

Times staff writers Tony Marrero, Richard Danielson and Will Hobson contributed to this report. Contact Caitlin Johnston at cjohnston@tampabay.com or (813) 661-2443. Follow @cljohnst.

Hillsborough leaders set to pursue transit tax vote, despite defeats elsewhere 11/05/14 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 25, 2015 5:34pm]
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