Hillsborough County’s planned path to a broader transportation network crashed into yet another roadblock this week.
Tuesday, voters rejected the proposed 1% sales tax for transportation and also turned back the reelection efforts of Democratic Commissioners Kimberly Overman and Mariella Smith, two of board’s leading mass transit advocates.
It follows a series of setbacks going back more than a decade including: A past referendum defeat; a 2016 brouhaha in which a commission majority declined to put the issue on the ballot; mixed court rulings on whether the 2022 ballot referendum was even legal, and, most prominently, the 2021 Florida Supreme Court decision that voided the sales tax approved by voters 27 months earlier.
But the immediate result of the referendum defeat is this: Hillsborough County is left with a $13 billion transportation shortfall, according to data compiled by the city-county planning commission, and no new revenue source to pay for it.
“We’re back at the drawing board again,” said Commissioner Harry Cohen, who was reelected Tuesday.
“I don’t know what we’re going to do to fund it. I don’t know what the appetite is,” said Commissioner Pat Kemp, a Democrat who will leave the commission in 2024 due to term limits.
Commissioner Gwen Myers said she plans to ask for another referendum in 2024, but that idea faces a tough road ahead in a new, Republican-controlled commission.
Republican Commissioner Ken Hagan, also reelected Tuesday, voted in the spring against asking voters to consider the tax proposal. He said it was mistimed amid rocketing inflation, high gasoline prices and rising interest rates.
And, commissioners-elect Joshua Wostal, Donna Cameron Cepeda and Michael Owen are Republican budget hawks. All three told the Tampa Bay Times they would not support putting the transportation tax referendum back on the ballot.
“I’m not for raising taxes. That’s just my answer to everything,” Owen said. “We’ve been kind of down this road for the past four years. Right now, I’m not supportive of it.”
Wostal and Cepeda both said the county can better finance transportation by changing its spending priorities.
“We definitely don’t need to keep raising taxes,” said Cepeda. “We have an $8.5 billion budget and the money’s there, but it’s about priorities and budgeting. It’s pretty simple.”
“The money is not there. Anyone who thinks it is needs to go find it,” said Kemp. “Others have been saying that for the last decade and a half.”
“There was a lot of talk during the campaign of finding resources in the existing budget. I don’t think that’s reality. It just isn’t,” said Cohen.
A prior commission promised in 2016 to set aside an additional $35 million toward transportation and increase that amount by $5 million every year for a decade. That meant about $600 million was supposed to be committed over 10 years to repair roads, sidewalks, bridges and intersections. It was dubbed the 812 plan because it called for $812 million, including impact fees, worth of transportation spending.
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But in 2020, halfway through the 10 years, commissioners learned the numbers weren’t adding up and the program faced a projected $423 million deficit.
Wostal suggested recommitting to that type of program while trimming outside spending on such things as multimillion-dollar allocations for the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts.
He also targeted cutting a current transportation proposal — expanding ferry service to serve a route between southern Hillsborough County and MacDill Air Force Base in south Tampa.
“The ferry is simply a fairy tale,” he said.
Owen, too, said he didn’t support the ferry proposal without a study documenting how much vehicle traffic it would eliminate.
“I’m for anything that alleviates traffic in south county,” said Owen. “I just don’t think that ferry boat does it at this time.”
The plan calls for the county to absorb the expense of buying boats and building the docks and passenger center while private company HMS Ferries Inc. pays the operating costs. The federal government already awarded the Hillsborough Area Regional Transportation Authority a $4.8 million grant to cover the cost of a new ferry vessel.
“We have that money set aside. If we turn our backs on that that would be astonishing,” Kemp said about the grant.
Wostal offered another potential way to pay for transportation and other infrastructure — reallocating future proceeds from the half-cent community investment tax. The 30-year sales tax expires in 2026.
It financed construction of Raymond James Stadium, fire stations, schools, parks and other projects. Through 2020, the county allocated more $1 billion from the tax, including roughly half for transportation projects such as roads, bridges, intersections, and sidewalks.
“I just believe that tax could be used ...to fund some of the obvious glaring needs that the county has,” Wostal said. “I don’t know if the county can afford to let that old, half-cent go away, but I definitely would never support funding a new sports stadium with it.”