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$500M TO BOOST ROADS, BUS

The county approves a five-year plan that jump-starts several transit projects, including light rail.

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 county tax money for mass transit.

In other action, commissioners agreed to spend more than $500,000 to redo the walkway around the Fred B. Karl County Center.

Commissioners Blair and Rose Ferlita questioned the $503,600 estimate for repairs.

"At this point when we're laying off people, passing out pink slips and saying 'no' to nonprofits, I think this deserves a re-look," Ferlita said.

Mike Kelly, the county's real estate director, said at least seven people had tripped or fallen recently on the walkway because of cracks and uneven concrete left by other repairs. The most recent incident last week resulted in a workers' compensation claim, he said.

Commissioners also agreed to give the parks department 13 acres of county land on Bruce B. Downs Boulevard just south of New Tampa Boulevard.

The property was part of 81 acres set aside for drainage and retention ponds for the widening of Bruce B. Downs, planned over the next four years. Road engineers refined their plans this year and counted 13 acres as surplus.

The New Tampa Players theater group wants to see a building constructed there that could house its performances. Hagan envisions the location as a neighborhood focal point that could be home to community theater or other events like the Taste of New Tampa.

"With the approval of this item, we're not determining what may or may not be approved here," Hagan said.

Norman, meanwhile, asked parks director Mark Thornton to prepare the site as a practice field for youth sports leagues.

Mike Brassfield can be reached at (813) 226-3435 or brassfield@sptimes.com.

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