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  1. Transportation

Half-cent tax would get Hillsborough transit plan rolling

TAMPA — If county officials have their way, a successful half-cent sales tax referendum in 2016 will bring in $117 million annually for transportation improvements.

But for those with much grander transportation ambitions, that revenue is only the beginning.

If the experiences of other cities are any indication, this potential referendum could be the kick-start needed to slowly build and fund a full-fledged transportation network over the coming decades.

In the past five years, Hills-borough, Pinellas and Polk counties have all failed to pass a 1-cent sales tax for transportation. These defeats, coupled with feedback gathered from months of public outreach, showed that the appetite for a 1-cent tax doesn't exist here, said Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill.

But while the $3.5 billion earned over the 30-year half-cent tax falls short of some people's expectations, it could be the catalyst needed to trigger other investments.

"We have about a thousand different options after this," said Kevin Thurman of Connect Tampa Bay, an advocacy group focused on maximizing the plan's investment in transit.

"Every community that has spent money on transit and started shifting their priorities has wanted to continue to shift their priorities."

• • •

Cities such as Charlotte, Denver, Phoenix and Salt Lake City started with an initial sales tax that allowed them to get projects started.

Then, when support for those projects swelled and trust was built, the communities were able to increase funding — whether through additional taxes, private sector investment, or state and federal funding.

County leaders hope an initial investment will have the same impact here.

"I don't want to get too far ahead and start getting people concerned that the real motive here is to extract more tax money," Merrill said. "But I think the thing that everyone agrees on with this recommended plan — regardless of where they stand — is it's not enough to take care of all the needs."

The question, Merrill said, then becomes: "What's the next step?"

One option: Up the tax to a full cent or .75 cent after it has been in effect for a decade or so. Initial funding allows communities to make improvements and start investing in transit. Once voters see value in something, it's easier to convince them to continue investing in it.

Denver had success with this approach, making an initial investment in the 1970s and then raising the tax in 2004.

Phoenix, which currently has a .4 percent tax for transportation, has a similar proposal on its ballot this fall. It proposes a .7 percent sales tax through 2050. The new revenue will help the city expand its light rail system and improve roads.

"That's how transportation works," said Bob Clifford of Parsons Brinckerhoff, the consulting firm that put together the half-cent plan. "Until you see it and actually utilize it, people don't full understand it.

"Historically, if you go back to other communities — Denver, Phoenix, Charlotte — once people start seeing the investment and seeing the actual projects, many times the discussion becomes about not should we fund that project or connect to that area, it becomes, 'When do I get it?' "

• • •

While it's legally possible to increase the sales tax through future referenda, Merrill said it's too soon to start thinking about upping the tax.

"There are other ways to gain revenue that isn't just asking for more in a referendum," Clifford said.

Both Clifford and Merrill pointed to Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik's $1 billion redevelopment of downtown Tampa as an example of how the private industry can have a major impact.

In Orlando, Florida Hospital invested money to build a SunRail commuter rail station on its main campus. In Denver, public-private partnerships are helping to build two rail lines and a maintenance facility.

And once a local jurisdiction makes an investment with its own funds, it becomes much easier to land state and federal grants. The $3.5 billion from Hillsborough's proposed half-cent sales tax alone, Clifford said, should help the county gain an additional $1 billion in state and federal funding.

Some leaders, such as Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, have advocated for giving cities the ability to put their own tax referendums on the ballot.

Pinellas Commissioner Ken Welch, who serves on the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority's board of directors, said the Tampa Bay area would benefit from a win in Hillsborough — but the ability to levy a city tax would be even more influential for the growth of transit.

"I think, personally, it needs to be a referendum in the city of St. Pete and the city of Tampa," Welch said. "In my mind, strategically, that's where we go."

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Caitlin Johnston at cjohnston@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3401. Follow @cljohnst.

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