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Hillsborough County to look at options for light rail without new tax

TAMPA — One of the leading opponents of last month's transit tax referendum says he now would like to figure out a way to pursue expanded mass transit without raising taxes.

Al Higginbotham, recently selected as chairman of the Hillsborough County Commission, said he thinks the public wants to see local government invest in new transit. As an elected county leader, he said he feels it's his responsibility to see if there's a way to do it without hitting taxpayers in the wallet.

"I want to see — is there something we have missed, something we have overlooked that could be explored?" Higginbotham said.

The Plant City Republican, one of the few local elected officials to regularly use the county's bus system, spent the past several months as one of the speakers of choice against the transit tax. He argued that, with the economy struggling, it was the worst time to ask the public for more money.

But he said that doesn't mean he is against transit. And he said that, based on what he heard during his many speaking engagements, he does not think the public is, either. A post-election poll seemed to bear that out.

"When I spoke over 70 times this past year, people overwhelmingly said, 'We get it about new transit but we don't want a new tax,' " Higginbotham said. "So I feel like I owe it to public to see what else there is out there."

If Higginbotham has something specific in mind, he's not telling. He said he will ask permission from fellow board members when they meet Dec. 15 to direct county staff to do an analysis of options short of raising taxes.

He said he initially wants to ask County Attorney Renee Lee for clarification on the limitations of taking on debt with various county revenue streams.

Voters overwhelmingly rejected a ballot proposal Nov. 2 to raise the sales tax by a penny on the dollar to pay for light rail, expanded bus service and road work. A poll commissioned by the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transit Authority found that the economy was very much on voters' minds when casting ballots.

David Armijo, chief executive officer of Hillsborough Area Regional Transit, said Higginbotham's office on Tuesday asked for research it has done on options for paying for transit. Armijo's agency, which runs the county's bus system, would have operated the rail system had the tax passed and has handled much of the analysis of options.

He said his staff is already looking into how it might move ahead with a scaled-down transit plan that doesn't include new local tax revenue and hopes to finish its work by January.

Some business leaders have suggested exploring ways to build one rail line —perhaps from downtown Tampa to the West Shore Boulevard business district — as a demonstration project of sorts.

Armijo said his office may look at whether there are opportunities for public-private partnerships or to draw federal money without a dedicated new tax.

"It's a challenge," Armijo said. "It may take more partners in order to pull it off."

Eric Johnson, an assistant county administrator who oversees budgetary matters, notes the county is scaling back spending due to declining revenues.

One possible option, he said, would be extending the county's Community Investment Tax, a half-cent sales tax that pays for such things as roads, jails and new schools. The tax expires in 2026 and commissioners have already committed much of the county's share of the tax receipts through its lifetime. (The county's school district and its three cities also get some of the tax.)

That would mean, however, passing off today's expenses to a future generation and leaving little money for other things the county may need to build.

Plus, that particular type of sales tax typically can pay only for construction and some equipment purchases, not operating costs.

It's possible, Johnson said, that the county or city of Tampa could create special taxing districts around new train stations that dedicate future growth in property taxes nearby toward operating costs.

That's mostly quick brainstorming, he said, adding Higginbotham has not formally asked for that analysis yet.

Higginbotham said he has not proposed extending the existing sales tax and would not say whether that's something he is considering.

"I want to keep my cards close to my vest," he said.

Interim County Administrator Mike Merrill noted there are a number of things commissioners and the county hope to be able to build in the future, from road widening projects to new jail space. Committing future tax revenue to something like rail would make it a challenge to do some of those things.

"There's a lot to be said to be doing a leg of the rail to show people how it works and get people comfortable with it," Merrill said. "It's a matter of choices."

Bill Varian can be reached at (813) 226-3387 or varian@sptimes.com.

Hillsborough County to look at options for light rail without new tax 12/07/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 7, 2010 10:55pm]
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