TAMPA — The morning after Hillsborough voters decided not to approve a tax increase to fund transportation, staff and board members of the county’s transit agency, long teetering on the edge of financial stability, gathered in a Tampa conference room and considered: What now?
“The good news is we have one more year to continue to provide the same level of service that we’re currently providing,” Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority CEO Adelee Le Grand said at the agency’s board meeting Wednesday. “The bad news is the level of service we are providing today needs to be improved.”
The county had asked voters if they would approve a 1% sales tax over the next 30 years to help fund transit and road improvements. The ballot failed, with 51.3% of voters saying no.
Advocates of the surtax say the referendum offered Hillsborough constituents a solution to the county’s multibillion-dollar backlog in road and transit projects. Had the measure passed, almost half of the proceeds would be earmarked for the county transit authority, known by the acronym HART.
“A lot of us were counting on the sales tax to be that conduit to our financial security,” Gil Schisler, Temple Terrace vice mayor and HART board member, said at the meeting. “But it’s not there. Now we have to find something else.”
Senior transit officials said the agency will try to work more closely with partners, such as the county’s transportation planning organization and the Florida Department of Transportation, and double down on efforts to find additional funding opportunities to keep the agency afloat.
HART is one of the nation’s most underfunded transit agencies with per-person spending rivaling that of Sheboygan, Wisconsin, a city with a population of less than 50,000, County Commissioner Pat Kemp said. Hillsborough is home to about 1.4 million, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.
Federal relief dollars have helped buoy the agency in recent years. Money from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, also known as the CARES Act, and the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act provided respite but no long-term fix.
“We’re not in a position that is unique or new to the position HART has been in for the last several decades,” Le Grand said Wednesday, nodding to the agency’s long history of bleak financial outlooks. “The question is for all of us: how are we going to work collectively to find opportunities to generate revenue?”
Her team will be “very aggressive at finding ways to increase revenue and be more efficient with the dollars that we already have,” she added.
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As the agency ponders its uncertain financial future, it will also contend with an altered 14-member board of directors.
Board Vice Chairperson Kimberly Overman, a vocal advocate for more affordable housing and mass transit, lost her county commission reelection bid to Republican Joshua Wostal.
Wostal had criticized Overman’s support for the transportation sales tax referendum and at one point called for her to resign her office after a circuit court judge said the ballot language was “misleading.”
Democratic incumbent Mariella Smith, who serves on the HART board, also lost her race to a Republican challenger. The GOP now has a 4-3 majority on the county commission.
The HART Board is responsible for setting policy and making decisions for the agency on matters ranging from service planning to fare structure to finance, and is made up of volunteers who are appointed to represent Hillsborough County (seven seats), Tampa (four seats), the state of Florida (two seats) and Temple Terrace (one seat).
No Tax For Tracks, the political committee that led the charge against the proposed surtax, agrees Hillsborough County has unmet transportation needs. “With a new county commission board, there must now be an honest and transparent conversation about how to fund those needs,” the group said Wednesday in a statement.
The group had previously identified a separate referendum on a property tax increase specifically to fund HART as a potential next step for the county.
“We cannot say what is next for this fight, but our passion is not diminished,” Tyler Hudson and Christina Barker, co-founders of the All for Transportation group advocating for the surtax, said following the referendum’s defeat. “The prospects for a better transportation future are not defeated but only deferred.”
At Wednesday’s meeting, Overman said clear communication about the agency’s financial future with new board members and the broader public is of “absolute necessity if we’re going to continue to provide transit services in Hillsborough County.”
This sentiment was echoed by Schisler, the Temple Terrace vice mayor, who described the role of board members as “a constant public relations job.”
Schisler, the grandson of a bus driver, said he was raised riding public transit in a community where there was little question of the importance of a great mass transportation system, a sentiment he’d like to see better communicated in Hillsborough.
“A modestly good transit system,” Kemp added in response. “That is what we are shooting for.”