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  1. Transportation

Hillsborough commissioners approve $600 million, road-based project list

TAMPA — Hillsborough County commissioners approved a $600 million list of transportation projects that consists largely of road work, telling opponents they'll deal later with expanding transit options in the county.

The commission voted in September to set aside the money for the work over the next 10 years, starting with $35 million in 2017 and increasing $5 million each year for a decade.

The projects list commissioners approved Wednesday focuses on safety improvements at intersections and schools, road resurfacing and new and wider roads to relieve congestion in unincorporated Hillsborough.

Major projects include $27 million for the Apollo Beach Boulevard Overpass, nearly $48 million for the Big Bend Road and Interstate 75 Interchange and $12.5 million in sidewalk maintenance throughout the county.

The commission voted 6-1 to approve the plan, with Kevin Beckner dissenting.

Opponents asked why no money was allocated for buses, rail or ferries.

"If we don't plan for ways to move folks around in the urban core ... in something other than cars, we are going to have a serious problem," said Laura Lawson, chair of the Metropolitan Planning Organization's Citizen Advisory Committee.

As a 10-year plan, commissioners said, it can't raise enough money for the long-term local commitments required to land major federal transit money.

County Administrator Mike Merrill called the new plan an interim step.

"Transit is a much bigger issue," Merrill said. "The 10-year time period really makes it difficult to draw down any serious federal money."

Said Commissioner Ken Hagan, "This is a starting point. We can, and likely will, amend the list going forward."

The next step, Merrill siad, is to identify funding sources for each project. He expects the process to take 60 days.

The vote comes months six months after the board rejected asking voters for a half-cent transportation sales tax for transportation that would have raised hundreds of millions of dollars for transit projects, including improved bus service and a rail line connecting downtown Tampa and the airport.

The rest of the $3.5 billion that the tax would have raised over 30 years was to be used for a backlog of road maintenance needs and other road projects.

Commissioner Sandy Murman voted against the sales tax referendum twice, but on Wednesday, she acknowledged it promised more benefits than the $600 million list the county settled on.

"We probably could've done a little bit more robust plan if we had done my plan or gone back to the half cent sales tax," Murman said.

In joining the 4-3 majority that rejected the tax, Murman floated her own alternative to use sources such as a gas tax and mobility fees to fund transportation. That plan also left little opportunity for transit.

The project list approved Wednesday is similar to one commissioners considered earlier this year with the sales tax, minus transit options. But many people who spoke at the meeting were concerned the list hadn't be properly vetted. Commissioners waived their board rules requiring a 10-day review period for the Planning Commission.

"There is no reason why you should slam through a roads-only proposition," said Kent Bailey, chairman of the local Sierra Club. "Slow this down. Take some time to hear from the people. A 10-day cooling off period is not unreasonable."

But the Planning Commission still had time to review the plan and did approve the projects, Executive Director Melissa Zornita told the audience Wednesday,

Said Commissioner Hagan, "Today's plan was essentially taken from what the board approved six months ago. It's essentially the same list we've had for three or four years."

Contact Caitlin Johnston at cjohnston@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3401. Follow @cljohnst.

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