TAMPA — There is little disagreement that Hillsborough County's roads and bus network are not meeting the needs of the fast-growing county.
But how to fix congestion and pay for better transit remains a thorny issue even as voting by mail already is underway on a proposed one-cent-on-the-dollar sales tax hike to raise billions for transportation improvements.
All for Transportation, the group that got the plan on the ballot, on Friday took its campaign to Cafe Con Tampa, a weekly current-event discussion group.
Its leaders urged people to vote for the tax, which would raise about $276 million per year for 30 years to pay for road improvements, sidewalks, trails, better bus service and transit. Some 32,000 mail ballots already had been returned as of Friday afternoon in advance of the Nov. 6 general election.
"We have so much sprawl that has been approved out in the Brandon area; it's almost impossible not to own a car," said Rena Frazier, an attorney and one of the group's leaders. "The congestion has gotten unbearable."
But the group faced some tough questions from critics who wanted to know whether the investment would actually reduce congestion, make streets safer and help low-income communities.
The tax would raise about $8 billion during its first two decades. For a household with an income that's average for the county, around $55,000, the proposal would mean an extra $120 per year in taxes, according to a sales tax calculator developed by the Internal Revenue Service.
Basic groceries, prescription drugs and medical supplies are exempt from the sales tax. Still, critics point out that sales taxes are regressive and hit lower-income households disproportionately.
That is one of the concerns of the NAACP's Hillsborough chapter, which has yet to decide whether it will back the plan. Its board is scheduled to meet with leaders of the group on Oct. 18.
"They cannot explain what it will do for the African-American community other than add buses," said Yvette Lewis, president of the chapter.
Lewis also wants assurances that the African-American community will be represented on an independent oversight committee that will be established to ensure the money is spent as promised.
Jim Davison, a Tampa physician and critic of All for Transportation, questioned whether the investment would reduce congestion. He has devised his own transportation plan and says it would pay for the same projects through a sales tax hike of just one-quarter cent on the dollar.
Hillsborough commissioners in June forwarded Davison's plan to a citizens advisory committee to consider but have not shown any inclination to move it forward.
"You're telling people in your flyers and made a statement here that congestion is going to get better," Davison said. "That's just not true."
Doing nothing is not an option, said Christina Barker, a leader of All For Transportation. She pointed to estimates that show about 700,000 people moving to Hillsborough over the next 30 years.
"If we do not do something, this is the best that it's ever going to get," she said.
Whether the tax would pay for new roads and road widening was another concern.
The charter amendment written by All for Transportation prohibits portions of the tax earmarked for congestion relief, road and bridge repairs, sidewalks and bike trails from being used for new roads or road widening.
But of the money that is allocated for roads, close to 20 percent can be spent building new ones, the group says.
Brian Willis, an attorney and All for Transportation leader, challenged the perception that people in Hillsborough reject paying for transportation improvements while those in other communities back them. Voters in the Seattle area, for example, in 2016 approved spending $54 billion on mass transit.
But other than a failed 2010 referendum, Willis said, no transportation plan has been put to Hillsborough voters for decades.
"It's not that we fail more often than them," he said. "It's that we try less."
Contact Christopher O'Donnell at email@example.com or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times.