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Hillsborough’s transportation tax question: Just hit repeat?

Commissioners debate how much to allocate for mass transit under a planned November referendum.
How much revenue should be earmarked for the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority under a proposed sales tax referendum became the topic of debate at a Hillsborough County Commission workshop Thursday.
How much revenue should be earmarked for the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority under a proposed sales tax referendum became the topic of debate at a Hillsborough County Commission workshop Thursday. [ LUIS SANTANA | Tampa Bay Times (2019) ]
Published Mar. 11|Updated Mar. 11

TAMPA — A second attempt at a 1 percent sales tax for transportation in Hillsborough County should not repeat the specific spending details of the 2018 referendum voided by the Florida Supreme Court, two commissioners said Thursday.

Conversely, three other commissioners said it would be a mistake to retreat from the referendum language that voters supported by a 57-43 margin.

The debate surfaced at a commission workshop after the cities of Tampa, Temple Terrace and the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority detailed their transportation budget shortfalls that would be aided by the sales tax.

Under the 2018 referendum, 45 percent of the tax revenue was earmarked for mass transit. Of the remainder, 54 percent was to be divided among the county and its three cities for congestion relief, safety improvements, sidewalks and trails. The Transportation Planning Organization would have used 1 percent for planning and oversight.

Related: Hillsborough transportation shortfall 'critical;' town hall tells why

The Florida Supreme Court voided the tax last year after a challenge led by Commissioner Stacy White, who said the tax was illegal because the spending allocations were set by a preconceived formula instead of by elected public officials. The courts have not yet ruled on distributing the $521 million collected over the 26 months the tax was in effect.

On Thursday, White suggested the new referendum plan cut the allocation to the transit authority to 35 percent and remove the specific categories the county must follow. The county’s share of the penny on the dollar tax would have been $980 million over 10 years, under the 2018 formula.

“If we go down the same path as 2018, we’ll create softball opportunities” for referendum opponents, White said. “If we botch this, we will lose public trust.”

Commissioner Mariella Smith opposed cutting the mass transit allocation and the maneuver to allow the county to spend the money as it wants.

“I do not believe we would have had such a high percentage of voter approval (in 2018) if it was a big, fat blank check,” she said.

Commissioner Pat Kemp and chairperson Kimberly Overman echoed her advocacy for mass transit.

Commissioner Gwen Myers said she would seek 40 to 45 percent of the revenue for the transit authority, but also wanted the restrictions lifted from the county’s allocation.

The debate, essentially, previewed a planned discussion at the commission’s March 23 meeting,

Earlier, the transit authority and municipal governments detailed their own transportation wishes.

Related: Hillsborough's unmet transportation needs: $2.2 billion

The city of Tampa could use $72 million annually for road maintenance, sidewalks, streetlights and congestion relief strategies including traffic signals and intersection changes, but only has $8.9 million budgeted.

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Plant City reported nearly $45 million of unfunded needs over the next decade.

The city of Temple Terrace has an $8 million shortfall on bicycle and pedestrian paths, but said its biggest need is not a city-owned road. Improving safety on county-owned Bullard Parkway from Morris Bridge Road to 56th Street is the city’s greatest transportation hurdle, said Mayor Andy Ross.

The Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority, known commonly by the acronym HART, said its goals include improving bus frequency and reliability. The agency has 30 routes, down from 33 two years ago. It runs buses every 30 minutes on nine of those routes and every hour on the rest.

Adding buses and paratransit vans, refurbishing transit centers, providing premium services like bus rapid transit and making other improvements across the system would require an additional $10.9 billion investment over the next 30 years.

The county has said it faces a $1.5 billion shortfall to expand and improve its transportation system over the next decade, plus another $700 million to maintain transportation facilities.

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