TAMPA — In a room adjacent to 63,000 books and materials at the Jan K. Platt library branch, six dozen people came to the South Tampa location Wednesday evening to learn about transportation.
The syllabus wasn’t on the library shelves. It was contained in a video, on story boards sitting on easels and from the public commentary about roads, sidewalks, trails, transit and most notably, dollars and cents.
“When you look at where we are and you look at what the need is, this is critical,” said Hillsborough Commissioner Harry Cohen.
Cohen was the unofficial host at the first of four scheduled town hall meetings on Hillsborough County’s transportation needs. The sessions come in advance of a planned November referendum on a proposed one-cent sales tax for transportation.
The county has said it faces a $1.5 billion shortfall to expand and improve its transportation system over the next decade. Its work 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.
The red ink doesn’t even account for maintenance. Preserving existing transportation facilities could cost $700 million over the next 10 years.
Meanwhile, revenue projections for transportation are $236.5 million in fuel taxes, state and federal grants and developers’ mobility fee payments. Commissioners also allocated $35 million from the county’s federal American Rescue Plan Act allocation to repave roads.
The story boards focused exclusively on the county’s transportation plan and did not include data from the city of Tampa, nor the regional transit authority.
Commission Chairperson Kimberly Overman, Commissioners Gwen Myers and Pat Kemp, County Administrator Bonnie Wise and her top lieutenants all joined Cohen to mingle among the audience and answer questions.
Overman and Cohen characterized the meeting as a listening session to set transportation priorities, but Myers was more candid. She treated it like a campaign kick off for the sales tax referendum..
“This is a tax we really have to pass for the community. We can get this done. We’ve done it before,” she said.
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.
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Besides the commissioners — all Democrats — the attendees included a handful of Republican candidates for office.
Joshua Wostel, running for the countywide District 7 seat held by Overman, repeated an often-heard complaint that a new sales tax unfairly burdens county residents for transportation spending in the city of Tampa.
Under the 2018 referendum, 45 percent of the revenue was earmarked for the Hillsborough Area Regional Transportation Authority, known commonly as HART, for mass transit. Of the remainder, 54 percent would be divided 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 for planning and oversight.
Some residents shared their own perspective.
“The biggest thing is congestion. No matter what time it is,” said K.J. Allea of Seminole Heights.
He said his daily commute is just 10 to 15 minutes on local streets, but he used to drive to Riverview for work.
“That traffic”, he said, “is unbearable.”
Allison Roberts, president of Dana Shores Civic Association and a member of the citizens committee advising the county’s Transportation Planning Organization, said road safety and repairs are top priorities.
“I’ve found the roads have been less safe even with fewer cars on the road,” she said.
The remaining town hall sessions are Monday, Feb. 28 at Northdale Recreation Center, 15550 Spring Pine Dr.; Tuesday, March 1 at the Lesley “Les” Miller, Jr. All People’s Community Park and Life Center, 6105 E Sligh Ave. and Thursday, March 3 at Riverview Public Library, 9951 Balm Riverview Road, Riverview. All begin at 6 p.m.
Myers said she was confident of a successful outcome.
“No one,” she said, “wants to be stuck in traffic.”