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Hillsborough County approves $600 million for transportation over the next decade

TAMPA -- Hillsborough County commissioners voted unanimously Thursday to dedicate $600 million to transportation spending over the next decade.

The proposal, a last minute compromise pushed by Commissioner Al Higginbotham, requires commissioners to put $35 million in transportation next year, and increase the allotment by $5 million every year for the next 10 years.

Commissioners chose Higginbotham's plan over another proposal from Commissioner Sandy Murman that would have raised an estimated $820 million over the next decade. Her plan would've set aside one-third of growth in property tax revenue for road work and other projects.

That plan, though, drew criticism from the county's financial advisers that it could result in a credit downgrade because it wasn't flexible enough to deal with an economic downturn and it prioritized funding transportation over paying off debt on time.

The decision was far more contentious than the final vote indicated and was reached after nearly 90 minutes of vigorous debate.

The vote is the culmination of three years of debate on how to pay for billions of dollars in transportation needs here. Earlier this year the county rejected a half-cent surcharge in the sales tax that would've raised an average of $117 million a year, or $3.5 billion over the next 30 years.

The plan approved Thursday would mean much less for transportation, though it does so without a tax increase. It's also focused mostly on maintenance and safety projects and won't include any significant investment in transit, like new bus lines.

As it is, Commissioner Kevin Beckner, who is leaving the County Commission at the end of the year due to term limits, told colleagues to not go out "beating its chest."

"The passage of this policy is not mission accomplished, board members," Beckner said. "You've got a lot more work to do."

Check and tomorrow's newspaper for more details on this important vote.