Advertisement
  1. Transportation

After six years, Hillsborough County actually does something about transportation

Traffic on Interstate 275 in downtown Tampa slows to a crawl in January. Commissioners voted to dedicate $600?million over the next 10 years to fixing roads, bridges, sidewalks and intersections.
Published Sep. 9, 2016

TAMPA — After a failed referendum in 2010 and two failed attempts to hold another in 2016, the six-year debate about how to pay for Hillsborough County's transportation needs reached a milestone achievement Thursday: Something actually passed.

County commissioners unanimously voted to dedicate $600 million over the next 10 years to fixing roads, bridges, sidewalks and intersections.

That won't require a tax increase; instead, commissioners moved to put $35 million more of the county budget toward transportation next year and increase that amount by $5 million each year for a decade.

The agreed-upon solution was so remarkably simple, it was put together in a couple of weeks by Commissioner Al Higginbotham. It passed Thursday just a few days after commissioners first laid eyes on it. Past proposals took months to draw up, expensive consultants and lots of public hearings.

But the approved plan is also well short of the amount needed to pay for Hillsborough's backlog of roadwork or to meet the demands of one of Florida's fastest growing counties. And it doesn't include additional commitments to transit.

The penny sales tax for transportation voters soundly rejected in 2010 and this year's failed attempt at a half-cent referendum both would have pumped billions of dollars into county coffers, including millions for buses and other transit — albeit at a cost many residents said they didn't want to pay.

Commissioner Kevin Beckner, speaking freely because he is set to leave at the end of the year due to term limits, told colleagues to not go out "beating its chest" after Thursday's vote.

"The passage of this policy is not mission accomplished, board members," Beckner said. "You've got a lot more work to do."

The decision was far more contentious than the final 7-0 vote indicated. It was reached after 100 minutes of vigorous debate.

Commissioner's chose Higginbotham's proposal over another from Commissioner Sandy Murman, which was supported by Commissioners Stacy White and Victor Crist. Her plan would have dedicated one-third of the growth in property taxes collected to raise about $741 million over 10 years to pay for transportation needs.

But financial and bond advisers cautioned that Murman's proposal could lead to a downgrade in the county's AAA bond rating. Putting transportation projects first, they said, could jeopardize debt payments.

"How any commissioner could ignore that fact is mind-boggling," Commissioner Ken Hagan said.

Higginbotham said his proposal — which he said he "didn't just fall off a log" and write — eliminated that concern by drawing from more revenue streams. It would take a super majority vote of five commissioners to change course, but included contingencies in case of an economic downturn.

"Brothers and sisters," he said, "we have been there."

It also included provisions for new quarterly budget reviews and new requirements for how county departments and commissioners can introduce new spending into the annual budget.

They still have to decide how to spend the money, but Higginbotham's plan required maintenance and safety improvements will be first in line.

Murman, though, worried Higginbotham's plan would turn into a "shell game." Without dedicating money first to transportation, she said, there was no guarantee future boards would oblige Thursday's decree.

"The new plan has more flexibility but it has less certainty," Murman said. "For me (transportation) is either a priority or it's not, it's a commitment or it's not. The new plan does not have the commitment or the priority."

Murman and Beckner successfully won a substantial change, however. Higginbotham's proposal could have drawn from revenues generated by new mobility fees charged to developers for new construction.

Commissioners approved those fees earlier this year. They were meant to be collected in addition to a sales tax increase. But that failed, and Beckner insisted the mobility fees should remain supplemental. In the first 10 years, those fees are expected to bring in about $100 million for transportation improvements.

Commissioners voted 7-0 to keep mobility fees separate.

With mobility fees, if commissioners stay the course, there will be $700 million new dollars for transportation by 2026.

It's not enough to end the transportation debate for long, Murman warned. She always envisioned her plan as a stopgap until the county completed a premium transit study that included a review of whether to buy CSX rail lines for a commuter rail system.

"This is a short-term solution," Murman said. "We all know where we're heading when you get the premium transit plan back. We have to go to the voters at some point with this robust, multimodul transit plant that's going to come in front of us."

"So get ready."

Contact Steve Contorno at scontorno@tampabay.com. Follow @scontorno.

ALSO IN THIS SECTION

  1. The Sunshine Skyway Bridge is seen with lights Sunday, Oct. 20, 2019 in St. Petersburg. The Florida Department of Transportation installed about 1,800 colored LED light fixtures on the Sunshine Skyway bridge. BRANDON MEYER  |  Times
    Engineers will spend the coming weeks perfecting the displays, which include holiday themes.
  2. The Florida Department of Transportation is putting the final touches on a $15 million project to illuminate the Sunshine Skyway bridge. FDOT officials say the long-delayed project should be finished...
  3. Cars back up at a Tampa intersection last October, not long before Hillsborough County voters approved a one-cent sales tax for transportation improvements. This week, local officials detailed how the money would be spent, if the tax survives a legal challenge before the Florida Supreme Court. URSO, CHRIS  |  Tampa Bay Times
    Local governments have plans for $527 million in projects. But the Florida Supreme Court would need to clear the way.
  4. The Florida Supreme Court building in Tallahassee. SCOTT KEELER  |  Times
    The Tampa Bay Partnership, Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce and Tampa-Hillsborough Economic Development Corp. filed a brief in the Florida Supreme Court.
  5. The Florida Department of Transportation is installing lights on the Sunshine Skyway Bridge as part of a $15 million project. During tests this weekend, engineers will illuminate the bridge in a pink hue to commemorate breast cancer awareness month. Courtesy of Florida Department of Transportation
    The Florida Department of Transportation is lighting up the span this weekend to commemorate breast cancer awareness month.
  6. The Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority is hoping to secure a $21.8 million federal grant to help pay for a bus rapid transit line connecting downtown St. Petersburg and the beaches. St. Petersburg City  Council approved an interlocal agreement Thursday supporting the project. ALESSANDRA DA PRA | Times
    Pinellas transit officials hope the project will get a federal grant in 2020. However, St. Pete Beach and South Pasadena still oppose it.
  7. The Cross Bay Ferry, Provincetown III leaves the Vinoy Yacht Basin in January with passengers headed to Tampa. For departure times and fares for this season, which will go from Nov. 1 through April 30, check thecrossbayferry.com. [SCOTT KEELER | Times] SCOTT KEELER  |  Tampa Bay Times
    Now in its third year, the ferry will run Wednesdays through Sundays, with service for every Tampa Bay Lightning home game.
  8. Col. Jennifer Crossman smiles as Boomer, a 5-year-old dog, sits in the passenger seat of her car during the firefighter challenge at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa. [Times (2016)] Tampa Bay Times
    Uber customers can now be connected with willing animal chauffeurs — for a fee.
  9. OCTAVIO JONES   |   Times Pasco County's long-range transportation plan no longer includes a proposed sales tax increase.
    The federally required plan guides transportation needs and expenses through 2045.
  10. Ryan Cummings, 23, of Tampa, left, and Alex Frey, 25, also of Tampa, rent Spin electric scooters from a corral located along Zack Street Tuesday, May 28, 2019 in Tampa. Electric scooter companies Spin, Bird, Lime and Jump were being deployed within the next few weeks according to a tweet from the City of Tampa on Sunday. Campbell and Henigan spent a couple of hours Tuesday trying the electric scooters. Frey and his friend Ryan Cummings rented two scooters during their lunch break. "We are going to Armature Works, we couldn’t do that without these." said Frey. CHRIS URSO  |  Tampa Bay Times
    Plus the most bizarre incidents of electric scooter vandalism around the city.
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement