Friday, November 16, 2018

Petition succeeds, Hillsborough voters set to decide on sales tax hike for transportation

TAMPA — As if there wasn’t enough riding on the mid-term elections, a plan to raise the sales tax to pay for transportation projects is now set to go before Hillsborough voters.

The Hillsborough County Supervisor of Elections confirmed Wednesday that the citizen’s group All for Transportation surpassed the roughly 49,000 signatures needed to get a transportation initiative on the general election ballot. Voters will be asked in about 90 days, on Nov. 6, to approve a one-penny county sales tax hike, from seven cents on the dollar to eight cents, for a 30-year period beginning in 2019.

"Tonight, Hillsborough County residents from every corner of the county can celebrate that their voices were heard," said Tyler Hudson, a Tampa Heights attorney and one of the group’s leaders. "In 90 days, the people of Hillsborough County will have an even bigger reason to cheer, when we begin the overdue work of funding a transportation system that saves time, money and lives."

Their success is expected to kick start another heated campaign pitting transportation activists, chambers of commerce and business groups against anti-tax and small-government groups.

TIMES ANALYSIS: Tampa Bay has one of the worst transit systems in America

All for Transportation already boasts big-name backers who pitched in $150,000 donations, including Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik, Tampa philanthropist Frank Morsani, and most recently Sykes Enterprises.

Now that the plan is on the ballot, they will likely be joined by real estate interests, chambers of commerce, the region’s professional sports teams and business groups, all of whom backed earlier failed transportation measures.

But groups like the Tea Party and No Tax for Tracks may look to repeat their successes in defeating a 2010 transportation referendum in Hillsborough and the 2014 Greenlight Pinellas plan.

"There will be campaign opposition because we don’t believe it’s needed," said Jim Davison, a Tampa physician. "There are multiple parties that will be voicing their opinion in opposition and possibly taking legal action."

That could include Americans for Prosperity, the group financed by billionaire oil brothers Charles G. and David H. Koch. Chapters of the group have mounted recent campaigns against public transit proposals in Tennessee, Phoenix, and Little Rock, Ark.

Their opposition is likely to highlight that the hike would tie Hillsborough with Liberty County for the highest sales tax rate in Florida at 8 percent. Eight counties including Monroe and Duval currently levy 7.5 percent.

The lack of a robust transportation network has long been identified by political and business leaders as a handicap when it comes to attracting businesses and investment in Tampa Bay.

Hillsborough County spends $20 million less on buses than the transit agency for Cincinnati and $60 million less than the agency for Detroit, which serve similar populations. The county has identified more than $4 billion in unfunded road projects.

As a region, Tampa Bay’s transit spending per capita is half of San Antonio’s, a third of Denver’s and a quarter of Pittsburgh’s. At $57 per person, it’s comparable to Sheboygan, Wis., and Macon, Ga.

The burden on the region’s roads is only expected to increase with an additional 600,000 people projected to move to Hillsborough in the next 25 years.

If approved by voters, 45 percent of the money raised from the new tax would go to the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit authority to improve bus service and pay for other mass transit. The remainder would go to Hillsborough County, Tampa, Temple Terrace and Plant City for road and bridge improvements, pothole repair, sidewalks, bike lanes and projects to ease congestion.

The money would be spent on projects identified in a long-range transportation plan developed by the Metropolitan Planning Organization, a transportation policy-making board made up of elected leaders from Hillsborough County, the School Board, Port Tampa Bay, Tampa International Airport and all three municipalities.

All for Transportation took advantage of a rarely used process known as charter amendment by petition to get the initiative on the ballot if petitions are signed by the equivalent of more than 8 percent of the voters in the most recent general election.

The move reflected frustration at the failure of local politicians to tackle the problem, particularly after the Go Hillsborough plan perished when the Republican controlled Board of County Commissioners voted 4-3 against putting it on the ballot in 2016.

With the help of a petition gathering firm, the group amassed almost 77,000 signatures in a rushed four-week period that ended July 27. Of those, more than 50,700 were verified by elections officials.

The highest level of support was in County Commission District 3, which includes much of Tampa and northern Hillsborough. The petition also exceeded the 8 percent threshold in District 4, far eastern and southern Hillsborough, but not in District 1, from south Tampa north to Odessa, or District 2, stretching from Brandon across the far northern county.

Contact Christopher O’Donnell at [email protected] or (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times.

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