Facing billions in transportation needs, Hillsborough commissioners find $8 million for roads

Published Dec. 3, 2015

TAMPA — Go Hillsborough wasn't on the agenda for Wednesday's Hillsborough County Commission meeting, but the transportation funding initiative continues to cast a pall over county business.

Commissioners fought several times over transportation funding throughout the meeting, the first since county leaders endorsed a referendum on whether to raise the sales tax a half-cent to pay for roads, sidewalks and transit projects. After a bizarre and chaotic sequence, the commission ultimately put aside $8 million for road work in the meeting's final moments.

The $8 million was excess money that was not used by Hillsborough's constitutional officers last year. Typically, those funds are held onto in case other expenses spring up after the budget is finalized. It's also just a fraction of the billions consultants estimate Hillsborough County will need to fund decades of transportation needs.

But Commissioner Sandy Murman called for the $8 million to go toward transportation — a gesture she said was symbolic but important. At last month's big transportation meeting, Murman voted against putting the sales-tax increase on the 2016 ballot. Instead she floated her own plan that relied on future growth, new fees on developers and a gas tax hike.

"We need to start putting our money where our mouth is," she said Wednesday. "We all sit here and talk about transportation ad nauseam."

Murman's motion failed for lack of support. It didn't even get a second.

She made another attempt, this time allocating $7.9 million to transportation.

Nearly every commissioner spoke critically — Commissioner Victor Crist likened it to "shooting at flies" — and County Administrator Mike Merrill cautioned against it.

But when it came time to vote, the measure passed 4-2.

"Now I'm not only speechless but shocked," Murman said.

Early in the meeting, another transportation debate broke out over a SouthShore development.

The developer, Duke Realities, agreed to pay $102,000 toward the widening of Big Bend Road in Gibsonton. While that was triple what was required of Duke under existing law, it represents a fraction of the cost of the project, estimated between $4 million and $5 million.

The development, an industrial park with 1.5 million square feet of warehouse space, has become a proxy in the county's ongoing dilemma over who should pay to build roads when new developments emerge.

Six years ago, the widening of Big Bend would have fallen on the shoulders of the developer. However, a change in state law means the county is on the hook for all but $34,000 of the expense. Duke agreed to pay three times that to ease commissioners' concerns.

Commissioners Kevin Beckner and Stacy White, however, said the agreement was still problematic because the agreement also extended Duke's exemptions from future mobility fees to 2026. The county is considering a switch from impact fees charged to developers to mobility fees, which would be much higher. However, the amended agreement passed 5-2.