TAMPA — Anyone who travels on Interstate 75 near Gibsonton Drive and Big Bend Road knows what to expect there during the morning and evening rush hours: cars inching along bumper to bumper and accidents caused by drivers caught off-guard when traffic halts suddenly.
But improvements to the traffic-choked interchange in eastern Hillsborough County are among dozens of road projects that would be funded with money from a new 1 cent sales tax if voters approve the measure on Nov. 2.
Transit advocates, such as Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio, had hoped all the money would go to expanded bus service and the launch of light rail. But at the urging of Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan and a transportation task force he created in 2006, road upgrades were added to the mix.
The tax, which would add 1 penny to every dollar spent on taxable purchases, is expected to raise about $180 million a year. Twenty-five percent of that will pay for road improvements.
Most of them are in unincorporated Hillsborough County, due to an agreement built around the thinking that Tampa would reap most of the benefits from the rail line.
That's good news to Mike Peterson, a land use lawyer and owner of a realty services business, who lives in Apollo Beach.
"This one's a good deal for South Shore," Peterson said of the tax. Rail won't reach the area anytime soon, if at all, Peterson said.
"But in our area we get a lot of road improvements we otherwise would not see for quite a while," he said. "You're actually contributing tax money to be brought back to the community."
The plan for road improvements could be one reason why a recent St. Petersburg Times/Bay News 9 poll found that more than 60 percent of likely voters in the South Shore area favor the new tax.
"Our area recognizes at least this time we get to look at the menu and know what we'll be paying for," Peterson said. "Usually we just fall very low on the priority list because there is such a backlog of needs north of us."
Similarly, one of the most immediate impacts Plant City residents will notice if the tax passes is road work.
"The rail portion overall is good for the county and the region, but it's not something I'm sure a majority of our residents will feel connected to. In truth, it will be decades before they see any rail," said Plant City City Manager Greg Horwedel. "The roads are really the important part for east Hillsborough County."
In addition to new road projects, the tax will add $2 million a year to Plant City's financially strapped street repaving program. Now, with about $1 million a year budgeted for road repaving, the city has the money to resurface streets every 60 years.
"Unfortunately, roads only last about 20 years before they need to be repaved," Horwedel said.
In recent years, the city has cut recreation and other programs to fund important road projects.
"It's gotten more and more difficult to do projects that are deemed to be necessary and worthwhile," Horwedel said.
In Temple Terrace, plans call for using $1.9 million in new tax money to install sidewalks and bike paths on 56th Street between Fowler and Fletcher avenues and $1.5 million for a main street that's part of the city's downtown master plan.
Some of the Temple Terrace projects have been on the books but unfunded for about 10 years, according to City Manager Kim Leinbach.
So would they get done without approval of the tax?
"I can't say they will never happen, but they certainly won't happen as quickly as they could with additional funding," Leinbach said.
Still, the road component isn't enough to sell everyone on the tax.
Bill Kale, who lives in Lithia's FishHawk Ranch, said he voted against it on his absentee ballot.
"The only road improvements that I was really concerned about are roads the county has already approved and has funding for," he said. "We're taxed to death as it already is. It's not a good time for a tax."
Kale, though, said he does believe in paying taxes for infrastructure improvements, particularly roads. And if the economy turns around, he might support a new tax to pay for those things.
"I'm antitax right now, period," he said. "Three or four years down the road, if the economy turns around, I think maybe I would support it."
Seffner resident Terry Flott also opposes the tax, even with the road component.
She doesn't want continued road widenings in her rural neighborhood.
"The tax plan is more of a development plan than anything else," she said. "Widening isn't always the answer."
Others accept the road component merely as a compromise.
Mariella Smith, a Sierra Club leader who lives in Ruskin, said she would have preferred that all the new tax money go to rail and bus service.
"We have many other sources of funding for roads," she said. "We should be making developers pay for more of their fair share of the roads."
But she's hopeful that the road component will persuade more people to support the proposal.
"For some people, the idea of having the roads widened sooner, it is a plus for them," Smith said. "They don't have the same feelings that I do about where that money should come from."
Smith said she supports the tax because the rail piece will encourage growth in the urban part of the county and stop sprawl near wetlands, wildlife and farmland.
"It's not a bad thing to get roads improved, but that's not the big attraction for me or the Sierra Club," she said. "We are compromising, going along with the roads here in order to get the transit and smart growth and alternative transportation funded."
She blames the road problem in southern Hillsborough County on bad planning during the real estate boom. The roads are crowded even though much of the development planned years ago hasn't happened yet. But when the market rebounds, she predicted, traffic will get worse.
"We are in this pickle," she said. "The roads are a mess and we're going to need to come up with some money to fix it."
Janet Zink can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3401.