Column: The case for a 20-year Hillsborough transportation tax

Published June 8 2016
Updated June 8 2016

Across the Tampa Bay area, families are buying new homes, businesses are expanding and our community is recovering from the Great Recession. Nationwide, Tampa Bay is recognized for our business climate, and we have become one of the fastest growing regions in the nation. About 1.3 million people live in Hillsborough County, with that number expected to double in the next 20 years. Without significant investments in transportation options, we are setting ourselves up for a future of traffic jams.

The Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce has been an advocate for transportation improvements locally and regionally. Our 1,200 member companies have charged our organization with supporting road and transit projects that will create economic opportunities and improve our quality of life. That is why the chamber is asking the Hillsborough County Commission to put on the 2016 ballot a half-cent sales tax of at least 20 years to fund transportation improvements.

Our volunteers are encouraging county commissioners to act, and to give voters the option to vote on transportation improvements. In the last three weeks, we have been promoting our position using the hashtag #YesTo20 on social media. But getting to this position was a long process.

For the past three years, our volunteers have met with elected officials, spoken to experts and reached out to their neighbors and customers. What they have found is frustration with the pothole that is never filled, bumper-to-bumper roads, sidewalks that dead end and buses that only run once an hour. It is not enough to just focus on roads, or just focus on transit. Hillsborough County, and the cities of Tampa, Plant City and Temple Terrace, need transportation improvements that provide options, solve today's problems and prepare for tomorrow's challenges.

If approved by voters in November, a 20-year, half-cent sales tax would generate more than $2.3 billion, or about $117 million annually. Funding would be divided by communities, not by types of transportation. Hillsborough County would get the majority of funding, and each government would decide how its funding is used. The 20-year duration would allow the possibility of federal grants to provide new and expanded transit options like the Tampa streetcar or express bus service.

Infrastructure is expensive, and so are the transportation improvements being considered by our elected officials. It is important to consider the cost to voters. Tourists and nonresidents would also pay the sales tax. The Hillsborough County sales tax would be 7.5 percent, one of 10 Florida counties with such a rate, if it is approved.

It is just as important to consider the costs of not investing in transportation. Hillsborough County broke the previous record for pedestrian deaths in 2015, and the Tampa Bay area is the second worst in the nation for pedestrian safety according to the National Complete Streets Coalition. The half-cent sales tax would cost between $72 and $96 per year per household.

No matter how much is spent on transportation, we will never eliminate congestion, especially with our explosive growth. But without investing in transportation options, we will lack the ability to overcome congestion and provide a better quality of life for our community. Kicking the can down the road and failing to act is not good public policy. The community should have the ability to vote up or down something that could improve their lives and the success of their businesses.

In our advocacy for transportation improvements, the chamber has supported all projects: better roads, improved transit and safer pedestrian access. As a resident of Hillsborough County, you will benefit from additional investments in transportation. You probably won't take a bus to the hospital, but your nurse might. You might not drive down Lithia Pinecrest Road, but your client or employee might. And you probably won't ride a bike to the park, but your kids do. You may never use all of the transportation options available to you, but you will need them because of the benefit to you, directly and indirectly.

It is our position that the way to prepare for the future of Hillsborough County is for the County Commission to place on the November ballot a half-cent sales tax of at least 20 years for transportation improvements. It should be up to you as a voter to decide if that is valuable enough for your support.

Bob Rohrlack is president and CEO of the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce.