Tampa would use transit tax proceeds to quicken improvements, not revamp plans

Tampa City Hall 3/2018, historic and modern.
Tampa City Hall 3/2018, historic and modern.
Published August 23 2018
Updated August 23 2018

If voters countywide approve a transportation sales tax in November, Tampa will use its share to quicken the pace of improvements and repairs already in the works, a city official said Thursday.

The estimated $33.7 million coming into the city's coffers during the first year would pave streets, widen sidewalks and make thoroughfares safer for bikers and pedestrians, said Jean Duncan, the city's stormwater and transportation director.

The  money wouldn't go toward any drastic changes in the city's plans for streets, sidewalks and bike lanes.

"Our priorities and our goals remain the same despite the additional monies that may come in," Duncan told council members.

Voters will decide Nov. 6 on a citizens initiative that proposes raising the county sales tax by one penny, to 8 cents on the dollar, with the proceeds going toward transportation projects.

The city's share would include $7.3 million for resurfacing, enabling Tampa to work on each of its 2,500 miles of roadway every 25 years instead of every 75 years as it does now. About 100 miles would be resurfaced each year with the new money.

Resurfacing more often saves money on repairs and makes streets more resistant to storms, Duncan said.

The city would also be able to pour an additional $9 million into street signal upgrades, including technology that alleviates traffic without the need to build turn lanes.

"It would completely transform our network," Duncan said.

More than $13 million would go toward so-called Complete Street projects, including sidewalks, pedestrian crossings and bike trails,

Complete Streets has been a political flashpoint in Tampa recently. Mayor Bob Buckhorn squashed a proposal to add bike and pedestrian improvements to Bay to Bay Boulevard in March, angering transit activists.

In May, a young mother and her toddler were killed crossing Bayshore Boulevard by drag racers, prompting more calls for flashing crosswalks and other safety measures on the city's iconic bayfront artery.

The proceeds from the tax couldn't be diverted to any use other than transportation, like a sports stadium, according to a fact sheet Duncan distributed to council members.

The money the city currently spends on transportation comes from gasoline taxes, impact fees and state Department of Transportation grants. The money can't be replaced with funds generated by the tax, Duncan said, because its use is restricted to transportation projects.

"This isn't just a bait and switch," she said.

Council members expressed support for the initiative, pushed by the All For Transportation group and business leaders including Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik.

Council members praised the citizen-led initiative, expected to raise $280 million a year countywide with 45 percent going to the Hillsborough Area Rapid Transit bus system and the rest split among the county, Plant City and Tampa. Tampa would receive 12 percent of the total.

"I see taking it to see our needs met, not our wants," said council member Luis Viera.

The money would help the city reduce its backlog of infrastructure needs, not embark on fanciful projects, he said.

Council member Guido Maniscalco said the city's traffic woes and crumbling streets have become a common complaint among his constituents.

"What I've heard every day since I've been elected: 'When are you going to fix the roads?'" Maniscalco said. "People shouldn't look at this as a tax increase. It's a public investment."

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