Even if voters approve a sales tax for transportation next year, Hillsborough County still faces a nearly billion-dollar shortfall over the next decade to build roads, improve intersections and add sidewalks and trails.
The forecast, shared Thursday with county commissioners, follows a similar financial briefing in May, in which the county said simply preserving its existing transportation facilities would cost $700 million over the next 10 years.
“Obviously, the needs are voluminous,” said Commissioner Stacy White.
A penny-on-the-dollar sales tax would produce $980 million for the county over 10 years, according to the funding formula that accompanied the 2018 voter-approved referendum later voided by the Florida Supreme Court. That potential revenue influx still leaves the county nearly $1 billion in the hole.
The county staff Thursday identified $1.8 billion needed to expand and improve its current transportation system. The 10-year plan includes: $900 million to widen roads and make streets safer; $473 million to improve 178 intersections; $273 million for 100 miles of trails and $238 million for 53 miles of sidewalks.
That work plan exceeds by $1.5 billion the $286 million budgeted over the next five years in the county’s capital improvement plan.
Without more dollars, the end result will be delaying the construction projects beyond 2032, which means continued congestion and less safe roads.
Combined, the county forecast calls for $2.2 billion in unmet transportation needs for both maintenance of existing roads and future expansions and safety improvements.
Its current revenue projection for transportation is $236.5 million in fuel taxes, state and federal grants and developers’ mobility fee payments.
To try to begin whittling the backlog, commissioners previously agreed to budget $35 million from the county’s $285.9 million federal American Rescue Plan Act allocation to repave roads. Earlier this year, the county also agreed to borrow $190 million to complete road improvements that already had begun.
Besides the proposed sales tax referendum, the commission also has the option of seeking up to a five-cent-per-gallon increase in the local gasoline tax. That could raise $172 million over 10 years. The commission has not discussed publicly a gas tax increase.
Thursday, commissioners spent more time debating when to hold public workshops on transportation issues than on the actual contents of the long-term plan.
The 10-year transportation plan and how to pay for it were scheduled to be the subject of a series of town hall meetings beginning in October, but commissioners said the meetings should be delayed until after the first of the year. They cited COVID-19, the multiple workshops on redistricting and comprehensive plan changes in southern Hillsborough, and the uncertainty over the final disposition of the proceeds from the 2018 sales tax referendum for the delay.
Only Commissioner Gwen Myers opposed postponing the town hall meetings.
“We need to get out there and tell our story to our citizens why transportation is so urgent and vital to the county,” she said.
But concerns of a presumed public distraction over the fate of the more than $500 million collected from the previous transportation sales tax outweighed Myers’ urgency.
“At this point I’m afraid, given that we have not had a resolution of the revenue that’s been collected, these meetings will primarily be on that point rather than focusing on the future,” said Commissioner Kimberly Overman.
Voters approved the tax for transportation in November 2018, and it produced nearly $503 million in revenue before the Florida Supreme Court ruled in February that it was unconstitutional.
The court decision came in a case from White, who said an elected commission, not a pre-determined formula in the referendum, held the authority to allocate the proceeds. By mid-April, the unspent sales tax revenue totaled more than $521 million, according to the clerk’s office. A circuit court judge has yet to rule on how the money will be distributed.