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$500M TO BOOST ROADS AND BUSES

Hillsborough approves a five-year plan that jump-starts several transportation projects.

The Hillsborough County Commission voted Wednesday to spend $500-million over the next five years to widen roads, improve intersections and plan for light rail.

"I'm convinced that the recommendations in this report ... will positively offset the quality of life in this community," said Commissioner Ken Hagan, who led the task force that proposed the spending package.

Commissioners approved the plan by a 5-2 vote, with Jim Norman and Brian Blair voting no.

Norman suggested holding off on spending half of the $500-million until after a possible sales tax referendum in 2010 that could help pay for a light rail network. If voters pass such a referendum, he said, the $250-million would give the county more say in what happens next with transportation projects.

Commissioner Mark Sharpe, a task force member, highlighted a list of $3.8-billion in unfunded transportation needs the group identified.

"We knew that to get the ball moving we had to put something of substance forward," said Sharpe, who backed the recommendations. "It's a dent. Two hundred fifty is like spitting into the wind almost."

The extra $500-million is above and beyond the more than $50-million a year the county already will spend on transportation.

Here's where that half-billion will go:

- $237-million to widen or extend 19 roads all over the county. Nearly $150-million would extend Citrus Park Drive and widen Lutz-Lake Fern Road and U.S. 301 near Riverview.

- $160-million to improve or construct 67 intersections.

- $40-million for buses, mostly for the county's first "bus rapid transit" route along Florida and Fletcher avenues. These are frequent buses that make fewer stops.

- $30-million to start buying rights of way for light rail.

- $18-million for a high-tech system that monitors traffic and adjusts signals accordingly.

- $15-million for new or improved traffic lights at 32 intersections.

The commissioners' approval of the recommendations gives the county the green light to move forward on financing.

Nearly $145-million of the half-billion dollars would come from the community investment tax, a half-cent sales tax. The county would borrow another $350-million through a bond issue and pay off the debt over 20 years, mostly using money from that tax.

"This is a balanced, multi-modal, fundable plan," Hagan said. "It complements any referendum that might take place."

Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio and other elected officials say they want to ask area voters to approve a new half-cent sales tax to pay for a better mass transit system that includes light rail.

A referendum would go to voters in Pinellas and Hillsborough at the same time - possibly in 2010, once officials have a more detailed plan.

Critics of the plan approved Wednesday say it puts too much emphasis on roads. But its defenders say the plan would earmark an unprecedented $70-million in tax money for mass transit.

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