Hillsborough residents split on transportation sales tax

Hillsborough County residents weigh the benefits of a half-cent or full-cent sales tax.
Published September 13 2015
Updated September 14 2015

TAMPA — Hillsborough residents who have attended a series of public transportation meetings are split in their support for a full-cent sales tax.

Two months after presenting a plan to county and city officials built around a half-cent 30-year sales tax, county staff and national consulting firm Parsons Brinckeroff are now asking residents to reconsider a full penny-on-the-dollar sales tax to fund Hillsborough's long list of transportation needs.

It's the same type of proposal that failed in Pinellas and Polk counties last year, and in Hillsborough in 2010.

The 1-cent option was put back on the table in the latest round of public meetings that started in August and last through October. In addition to gauging people's interest in the full-cent tax, officials are hoping to finalize a list of specific projects that would be funded in the first 10 years of the 1-cent tax.

About 550 people have attended the latest round of meetings, which are being run by officials from the county and the consulting firm. But less than half of those attending — 245 — took the time needed to fill out surveys.

Those who did participate were divided on whether they prefer the full-cent tax over the half-cent option. About 47 percent of respondents said the county should move forward with the full-cent plan while 43 percent said no.

Another 10 percent were undecided.

"Personally, I don't mind paying the 1 percent sales tax," said Carla Betts of New Tampa, who retired there after moving from Boston. "With the half cent, they're not really covering anything in New Tampa. They're leaving so many projects out if we only do the half cent."

The goal of reintroducing the 1-cent option was to give people realistic expectations of what they would and wouldn't get with a half-cent sales tax, Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill said.

The half-cent proposal is projected to generate $3.5 billion over 30 years, where a full-cent tax would double that revenue to about $7 billion.

The county's 10-year project list for the half-cent plan includes funding bus rapid transit in south county and Brandon, a ferry from south county to MacDill Air Force Base, automated traffic-management systems that ease congestion at 26 intersections and $276 million in road improvements including sections of Lithia Pinecrest Road, Apollo Beach Boulevard, West Shore Boulevard and Orient Road.

The meetings — which are set up in an informal, interactive format — include display boards detailing exactly what projects in the first 10 years are on the chopping block if the county moves forward with the half-cent option. They include:

• An east-west connector road from Interstate 275 to the New Tampa bridge.

• Road improvements to Manhattan Avenue, New Tampa Boulevard, Kinnan Street and Mansfield Boulevard.

• Multiuse trails along Himes Avenue and the green artery perimeter.

• An additional $250 million for premium transit in the county, which could include light rail, bus rapid transit or other modes.

While some, like Betts, were willing to pay the full-cent to maximize the amount of improvements to roads and transit, others adamantly opposed any tax — especially if it goes to fund light rail.

"I believe there should not be any more taxes," Lisa Parish, a longtime resident of North Tampa, told county representatives during a recent meeting. "I believe a lot of people in Tampa live under the poverty level. They could make it work, but it would make their lives harder."

Parish, like many who attended, asked why both the half-cent and full-cent options were listed on the surveys and what the differences were between the two plans.

"Clearly a lot of things people talked about wanting would not be brought in with the half percent," county spokeswoman Lori Hudson told Parish.

"We want to make sure that people understand with the half percent, while we do get a lot of projects accomplished, it's not as many as people asked for initially."

Parish was one of several people who wandered into the Sept. 2 meeting intending to go to the library, but didn't realize it hadn't opened yet. But even though several people in attendance had unintentionally stumbled across the meeting, many still had plenty of opinions to share on transportation.

On average, about 21 people have attended each meeting. Attendance dipped as low as three people at a meeting in Central Tampa and as high as 73 in Westchase.

The meetings will conclude in mid-October. County staff and consultants will then prepare a final proposal and project list that will go before county commissioners at their Nov. 5 meeting.

If the commissioners approve the list, they will set a Dec. 2 public hearing where commissioners will vote on whether to put the referendum on the November 2016 ballot.

Contact Caitlin Johnston at cjohnston@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3401. Follow @cljohnst.

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