Times recommends: Yes for Hillsborough transportation referendum

SKIP O’ROURKE  |  Times
Traffic slows to a crawl along Brandon Boulevard (State Road 60) in both directions during the evening rush hour looking toward the east on 5/1/14
SKIP O’ROURKE | Times Traffic slows to a crawl along Brandon Boulevard (State Road 60) in both directions during the evening rush hour looking toward the east on 5/1/14
Published September 28
Updated September 28

The Hillsborough County transportation referendum offers something for everybody: Better intersections in Brandon and New Tampa. New mass transit connections to West Shore, Tampa International Airport, the University of South Florida and MacDill Air Force Base. Safer streets. Fewer bottlenecks. Even sidewalks for children at school. Hillsborough voters should approve the 1-cent sales tax, because it would significantly improve transportation and better position the region for the future.

The measure would increase Hillsborough's sale tax by a penny for 30 years. The money could be spent on a broad range of projects, from fixing intersections, bottlenecks and potholes to enhancing bus and other mass transit services. Though Hillsborough voters rejected a similar plan in 2010, this measure is the strongest and most balanced to come along. The impressive voter petition effort that placed the amendment on the November ballot reflects the increased frustration with traffic congestion that is worse than ever.

Roads. The plan commits 54 percent of the revenue generated by the tax to the county and its three cities - Tampa, Temple Terrace and Plant City - to road work. Of that, at least 27 percent would go for improvements to make streets, roads and bridges safer. Another 26 percent would go to relieve rush-hour bottlenecks and speed traffic flow on existing streets. Twenty percent would go for road and bridge repairs, such as filling potholes. At least 12 percent would be spent on bike and pedestrian safety improvements. The remainder - up to 15 percent - could go for any transportation project, including for new traffic lanes.

Mass transit. Another 45 percent of the revenue generated by the tax would go to HART, Hillsborough's mass transit agency, to further develop, operate and maintain public transit service. At least 45 percent of that portion would enhance bus transit and other HART services, and at least 35 percent would be spent on transit that utilizes dedicated rights-of-way, such as express buses, trolleys or rail. The remaining portion could be spent on any public transit project. The goal here is to expand existing bus service across the county even as HART explores more modern options for moving more people more efficiently.

Oversight. The plan creates an independent oversight committee to ensure the money is spent as promised. The committee would include appointees from the county, the cities and HART, and also experts appointed by the county's elected constitutional officers, including the clerk, property appraiser and tax collector. This 13-member board, which must include an attorney and experts in land use, transportation, real estate and accounting, would bring expertise and an independent perspective to this critical auditing role. The board would issue an annual report certifying if the taxes were appropriately spent, and it would disclose its findings online and at a public hearing.

Benefits. The plan generates real money, about $300 million a year, to fund long-delayed projects. HART's portion, for example, amounts to more than three times what the agency generates now from property taxes, its single biggest revenue source. Over its 30-year life, the tax would raise about $9 billion, plugging a big hole in the $13 billion backlog in Hillsborough's transportation needs. It could speed up by years tens of millions of dollars in road resurfacing, bridge replacement and other work. New curbing and lighting on major roads could reduce crashes in Hillsborough by up to 50 percent. Expanded bus service would benefit residents across the county. Riders could catch a bus within walking distance of work or home. Seniors in Sun City Center could get to the grocery, the doctor or the theater without needing a car. Thousands could make direct connections between downtown, the airport and the major employment centers, from USF to West Shore. And new money for HART would be a magnet to attract additional state and federal matching dollars, enabling Hillsborough to further grow its transit system.

The transportation measure is one of two countywide tax referendums on the Hillsborough ballot; another seeks a half-cent sales tax increase for school maintenance and construction. If both pass, Hillsborough's sales tax would be 8.5 cents, the highest in the state. That's no small sum, and sales taxes are regressive, hitting lower-income households disproportionately. Any increase must be targeted to serve an overwhelming public benefit. This tax passes that test.

The proposal provides enough money for transportation improvements that residents would actually see regardless of where they live. It includes a balance of projects in the cities and suburbs, and it gives every local government the flexibility to address their specific needs. The oversight board would keep spending on-track, and the plan is forward-looking enough to embrace new technologies, such as autonomous vehicles. Roughly one-fifth the proceeds would be paid by visitors, even as it draws down new matching funds.

For Hillsborough County referendum No. 2 on a one-cent sales tax for transportation and road improvements, the Tampa Bay Times recommends voting Yes.

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