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Hillsborough transportation tax debate informed by new poll

Sixty-two percent of respondents said they wouldn’t use public transit, but one-third say it is very important to the community.
Riders gather at a Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority bus stop at the University Area Transit Center in 2019. Citing a new poll of residents in unincorporated Hillsborough, Commissioner Stacy White says more money should be earmarked for roads and less for mass transit if  a transportation surtax is approved by voters in 2022.  [LUIS SANTANA   |   Times]
Riders gather at a Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority bus stop at the University Area Transit Center in 2019. Citing a new poll of residents in unincorporated Hillsborough, Commissioner Stacy White says more money should be earmarked for roads and less for mass transit if a transportation surtax is approved by voters in 2022. [LUIS SANTANA | Times]
Published Jun. 1

TAMPA — Three-quarters of the residents in Hillsborough County wouldn’t use mass transit to commute to work even if it were conveniently available, according to a recent survey.

The same poll found residents ranked the county’s road system as the leading growth-stressed infrastructure need, topping schools, utilities and public safety.

HCP Associates conducted the telephone survey of 1,300 residents of unincorporated Hillsborough County, on behalf of Plan Hillsborough and the county, to gauge public sentiment about population growth and new development. The poll, conducted January through March, has a margin of error of 2.7 percent.

The results already are shaping public debate over how to spend the proceeds of a proposed transportation referendum if voters authorize the penny-on-the-dollar sales tax in 2022.

The survey is “pretty telling with regards to what residents want to see in terms of appropriation of transportation revenue,” said Commissioner Stacy White.

Related: Hillsborough County on road repairs: Pay now or pay more later

White said he wants more money allocated to roads and less earmarked for mass transit if voters approve the tax.

“Absolutely,” he wrote in a text message, “and I think the people of unincorporated Hillsborough County, which is approximately two-thirds of our county’s population, would agree based on that data.”

Among the questions asked was: “If it were more available or convenient, would you take public transit to work?” Sixty-two percent said “no,” 14 percent said they had no need because they work from home and 9 percent said they already use mass transit.

Of the 62 percent who rejected mass transit, nearly nine out of every 10 respondents said they had no need or already had a transportation option even if it meant relying on friends or family members for rides.

However, 15 percent of the respondents said they would consider using public transit. Combined with existing users, it means nearly one in four people in unincorporated Hillsborough uses or would use transit if it were more readily available, the poll found.

Advocates for the transportation tax seized on those numbers.

“It speaks very strongly to the support to public transit,” said Commission Chairwoman Pat Kemp.

She noted another survey question showed a third of the respondents said convenient access to public transportation is very important to a community.

“Fifteen percent of unincorporated residents expressing the want and desire to use transit is incredibly heartening because right now transit service outside of incorporated areas is woefully inadequate,” said Christina Barker, a co-founder of All for Transportation, the citizens group that championed the tax referendum in 2018. “That’s probably why voters in unincorporated Hillsborough County voted to support the sales tax in 2018 because they are looking for better transit infrastructure.”

That voter-approved surtax, later voided by the Florida Supreme Court, called for 45 percent of the revenue to be earmarked for the Hillsborough Area Regional Transportation Authority, known commonly as HART, for mass transit. Pre-pandemic projects estimated the tax would generate $276 million annually.

Barker said All for Transportation would not support lessening the proposed investment in transit.

Hillsborough Commissioner Gwen Myers, who made the motion to restart the referendum for 2022, also has said she wants the same funding formula to remain in place. It includes dividing 54 percent of the revenue among the county and the cities of Tampa, Temple Terrace and Plant City for congestion relief, safety improvements, sidewalks and trails. The Transportation Planning Organization would use 1 percent of revenue for transportation planning and oversight.

White filed a successful legal challenge to the 2018 tax, saying it was illegal for a citizens group, and not elected commissioners, to decide how to spend the money.

Last week, during a commission workshop on transportation maintenance costs, White referenced the poll findings upon which he said he had received a recent briefing.

The survey results and the projected 10-year, $639 million shortfall in the county’s road, bridge and sidewalk maintenance budgets were, White said, “very enlightening to me and very telling with respect to what a proposed (surtax) spending plan should and should not look like.”

Myers, in an interview, said she planned to collect input at upcoming public workshops on the tax proposal, but “I would think right now I would support Hillsborough County’s surtax in a manner that the voters supported it in 2018.”

The sales tax referendum passed with 57 percent of the vote in 2018.