A Hillsborough Commission majority wants to tell Tallahassee how to spend a share of the nearly $570 million collected by a transportation sales tax later voided by the Florida Supreme Court.
Commission chairperson Ken Hagan, a Republican, joined the three Democrats on the board Wednesday to recommend $424 million worth of transportation projects to the state Department of Revenue.
Republican commissioners Michael Owen and Donna Cameron Cepeda dissented. Commissioner Joshua Wostal abstained, saying he believed voting on how to spend an unconstitutional tax violated his oath of office to uphold the state Constitution.
Owen previously lobbied for spending more than $200 million on widening Lithia Pinecrest Road in his east Hillsborough district. On Wednesday, he said the commission should give a blanket endorsement of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ proposal to refund the money collected to taxpayers and spend whatever’s left on unspecified transportation projects in Hillsborough County that excluded mass transit.
Commissioner Harry Cohen noted the wish list did not include $25 million for a Hillsborough transit agency maintenance facility that Commissioner Pat Kemp had originally suggested.
Both Kemp and Hagan emphasized the importance of setting aside $9 million to complete the 2.5-mile gap in the Upper Tampa Bay Trail.
Hagan said the project list was the best available option in light of unknown circumstances, including how much will be refunded to the public and whether the remainder will be shared with the cities of Tampa, Temple Terrace and Plant City.
“At the end of the day, this is a wish list. We don’t know what the final plan will be approved by the Legislature,” said Hagan.
The recommended spending list included:
- $130 million to pave 680 miles of roads
- $103 million for congestion relief
- $74 million for intersection projects
- $40 million to repair 300,000 linear feet of sidewalks
- $34 million for safety projects, including better walking routes to schools
- $34 million to repair and replace bridges
- $9 million for trails.
The congestion relief category included allocations for some of the county’s most high-profile bottlenecks: $35 million for Van Dyke Road, $25 million for the area near the University of South Florida, $19 million for Big Bend Road in south county and $10 million for Lithia Pinecrest Road.
Earlier Wednesday, Jim Davison of New Tampa, a frequent critic of the county’s transportation priorities, said it was “ridiculous” to devise a project list without knowing how much money the county might have to spend. Separately, he said the commission should ask the governor to reconsider his opposition to allocating money to mass transit.
As several commissioners noted, the money isn’t guaranteed. The state directed the county to devise a potential list of transportation projects that could be financed with $569.7 million escrowed from the voided transportation sales tax. Later, DeSantis ordered a public refund of the sales tax as part of his proposed state budget. If the Legislature agrees with the governor’s plan, the leftover money won’t be available to Hillsborough until after April 1, 2024.
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Voters approved the 1% sales tax for transportation in 2018, but the Florida Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional in February 2021 on a challenge from former Commissioner Stacy White. He argued the tax was illegal because final spending allocations were not overseen by elected officials. Instead, they were contained in the referendum ballot language.
Circuit court judges also have ruled the state Legislature should determine how the 26 months worth of sales tax collections — plus interest — should be spent. That led to the wrangling Wednesday after the state Department of Revenue asked the county for recommended projects.