Hillsborough commissioners wonder: How do we pay for transportation?

At a workshop, commissioners don’t pick a preferred method to close a $287 million capital project deficit.
Traffic is shown on Bloomingdale Avenue near Gornto Lakes. Wednesday, Hillsborough County commissioners were briefed on a planned $190 bond issue to help close a more than $400 million deficit in the county's 10-year transportation plan.
Traffic is shown on Bloomingdale Avenue near Gornto Lakes. Wednesday, Hillsborough County commissioners were briefed on a planned $190 bond issue to help close a more than $400 million deficit in the county's 10-year transportation plan. [ Times (2019) ]
Published Jan. 28, 2021

TAMPA — Hillsborough County commissioners began to fill a $423 million pothole in their 10-year transportation plan Wednesday, with a fix that could have long-term implications for other government services, including sheriff’s operations, firefighting and parks.

That is one of the byproducts of a proposed $190 million bond issue considered by commissioners in a workshop: Reducing traffic congestion and making roads safer means less money in the future to pay for other services in the unincorporated portions of Hillsborough County.

“I guess we’re going to find out about the money we don’t have,” Commission Chair Pat Kemp said at the outset of the meeting.

The future budget constraints will come if the county pledges $10 million per year in sales tax revenue to pay off the 30-year bonds. It’s the same pot of money that makes up 14 percent of the budget, covering the unincorporated county that is home to about two-thirds of the Hillsborough population. It pays for such things as fire rescue, parks and recreation, code enforcement, Sheriff’s Office operations and other departments.

Related: Hillsborough budget shows transportation shortfall

The transportation shortfall, first revealed last summer when County Administrator Bonnie Wise proposed the 2020-21 county budget, won’t go away even with the bond issue. Left to be determined is how to pay for $233 million worth of corridor improvements and ongoing maintenance in the original 10-year plan. The county’s capital improvement program deficit actually is higher, showing a $287 million shortfall over the next five years.

The county initially planned to use short-term financing to cover those costs, but has no revenue source to pay off the debt. Potential funding options include increasing fuel or property taxes, adding a 10 percent tax on utilities, asking voters to extend the 30-year sales tax known as the Community Investment Tax that ends in 2026, or reallocating existing spending. Commissioners did not identify a preference.

“We clearly need a strategic, sustainable investment plan for transportation,” said Commissioner Kimberly Overman who said a property tax would be the least regressive of the tax options.

Commissioner Mariella Smith called the presentation “eye opening” and said the county has to stop repeating the planning mistakes of the past.

“We are actually several billion dollars behind in transportation needs,” she said.

Commissioner Ken Hagan also advocated for a dedicated funding source for transportation.

“Anything less is kicking the can down the road,” he said.

Financial questions abound because the voter-approved transportation surtax remains in limbo, amid a legal challenge before the Florida Supreme Court.

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Commissioner Stacy White, who filed the challenge, did not comment on the funding shortfall during the workshop.

Commissioners adopted a decade-long $600 million transportation plan in 2016 and then revised it to $812 million worth of improvements in spring 2017 amid rosy financial projections. The money would come from multiple sources, including property taxes, gas and sales taxes, transportation fees from developers, grants and the 1996 voter-approved sales tax known as the Community Investment Tax.

But, for the past two fiscal years, the commission didn’t budget a general fund allocation for transportation, choosing instead to invest in public safety. A coronavirus-induced plunge of sales tax collections widened the funding gap.

Kemp said she voted against the $812 million plan nearly four years ago because she believed the financial projects were unrealistic.

“Inevitably it was going to crash, COVID or no COVID … we couldn’t maintain it,” Kemp said.

Some of the planned work to be covered by the bond issue is at the “point of no return,’' said County Administrator Bonnie Wise.

Topping the recommended project list are seven congestion-relieving corridor improvements totaling $139.5 million. Three already under construction: Bell Shoals Road between Knowles and Boyette roads; extending Citrus Park Drive from Countryway Boulevard to Sheldon Road and building the Apollo Beach/Paseo Al Mar boulevards overpass at Interstate 75.

The project list calls for transferring money to the state Department of Transportation to design and rebuild the Big Bend Road and I-75 interchange; completing the design and constructing improvements on the Big Bend Road corridor between U.S. 41 and U.S. 301 and finishing the design work and buying the right of way to completing East 131st Ave from North 30th Street to U.S. 41 and finishing the Ruskin Gap of the South Coast Greenway Trail between 9th Avenue and State Road 674.

The Big Bend Road work accounts for $82 million of the spending, said John Lyons, assistant county administrator.

The proposed bond issue also would finance $50 million worth of projects separate from the corridor work: $27.1 million to add turn lanes, medians and other safety improvements at 16 intersections; $11 million for sidewalk and bicycle safety enhancements at 13 sites; $6 million to replace seven bridges; $3.1 million for upgrades to the safety zones at 126 schools; and $2.9 million to retrofit 126 intersections with solar-powered emergency beacons that would operate during power outages.