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  1. Transportation

Hillsborough commissioners approve $905 million list of transportation projects; now comes the hard part

The City of Tampa added new bike lanes to Bayshore Boulevard in 2011. New bike lanes, sidewalks and road improvements are among the hundreds of transportation priorities the Hillsborough County approved on Wednesday. The commissioners, though, haven't yet figured out how to pay for those projects. [SKIP O'ROURKE  |  Times]
The City of Tampa added new bike lanes to Bayshore Boulevard in 2011. New bike lanes, sidewalks and road improvements are among the hundreds of transportation priorities the Hillsborough County approved on Wednesday. The commissioners, though, haven't yet figured out how to pay for those projects. [SKIP O'ROURKE | Times]
Published Apr. 21, 2016

TAMPA — It didn't take long for Hillsborough County commissioners on Wednesday to unanimously agree on a $905 million list of transportation projects to tackle over the next decade.

Figuring out how to pay for it, though, promises to be a much longer and more difficult fight. That could play out next week when commissioners hold public hearings on a proposed 30-year, $3.5 billion half-cent sales tax hike and mobility fees for development.

If the county succeeds in settling on a funding source, it now has a blueprint for how to spend the money for at least 10 years — and, potentially, a response to critics who say there is no plan. Such complaints doomed a previous attempt at a sales tax increase.

The list of hundreds of projects includes:

•$124 million for bus rapid transit service in Brandon and south county, plus other transit improvements throughout Hillsborough.

•$21 million for a ferry to connect MacDill Air Force Base with Southshore, home to many military families.

•$255 million to widen or build seven major thoroughfares in growing parts of the county, such as adding two lanes to Big Bend Road and building a four-lane extension of Citrus Park Drive.

•$65 million for so-called "complete streets" with features like dedicated bike lanes around University of South Florida, Palm River, Westshore and on Columbus Drive in Tampa.

Additionally, the county plans to spend $260 million resurfacing roads, fixing bridges and repairing sidewalks and $176 million on safety improvements, mostly intersection upgrades and better traffic patterns near schools.

Not included, because it is not in the county's jurisdiction to decide, is how the three cities — Tampa, Temple Terrace and Plant City — and the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority plan to spend the portion of a sales tax that would flow into their coffers.

In a letter to the county, Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn reiterated the city intends to spend $90 million to expand the streetcar that connects Channelside to Ybor City and to build a transit line from downtown to Tampa International Airport. HART will spend nearly $300 million through 2026 on improving bus service by expanding and introducing new lines.

By first submitting a comprehensive list of projects, commissioners hope to avoid a fatal mistake of the failed 2010 sales tax referendum. Then, county leaders opened the transportation initiative to criticism by asking voters to raise taxes without outlining how the money would be spent.

But already there is resistance to the proposed priorities, and commissioners got a taste of it Wednesday.

Representatives from the Tampa Bay Group Sierra Club spoke against the proposal as too heavily reliant on roads and implored a greater shift to transit projects.

Former commissioner and light rail advocate Ed Turanchik said the list of projects is not focused enough on moving people within and around existing business districts and warned it wouldn't alleviate congestion.

Turanchik, who has helped craft alternative funding proposals and has actively lobbied business groups and other stakeholders against a half-cent sales tax, also wanted funds to acquire existing rail lines from CSX Transportation that could be used for commuter rail.

"I state emphatically this is not a transit plan," Turanchik said. "This is a status quo plan."

Merrill shrugged off Turanchik's remarks.

"What Turanchik wants to do is to stop doing everything for 10 years (and build a train instead)," Merrill said after the meeting. "It's crazy."

Merrill said the 10-year plan addresses immediate concerns and lays the foundation for more aspirational projects, like CSX, in the second and third decades of the sales tax. If HART's piece and Tampa's streetcar and rail line are included, 45 percent of the first 10 years of the sales tax will go toward transit. Merrill envisions that increasing to 65 percent during the next 10 years.

"I want to get to where they want to be," he said. "But you don't flip the switch and suddenly you're Charlotte. Two-thirds of the county is rural and suburban. There's no density for transit."

Merrill was heartened that all seven commissioners voted for the plan — a sign, he said, that there's at least agreement on the need.

But don't mistake that for unanimous support for Merrill's recommendation to adopt a 30-year half-cent sales tax hike.

Commissioner Kevin Beckner said he's still hesitant to back a tax longer than 10 years. Commissioner Victor Crist, considered the swing vote who will decide whether a sales tax referendum is put on the ballot, was largely silent during that portion of Wednesday's meeting.

And then there was this exchange between Commissioner Les Miller, who supports the sales tax initiative as proposed, and Commissioner Sandy Murman, who has offered an alternative plan that relies largely on a five-cent gas tax surge, higher fees on development and money form the BP oil settlement.

After Murman received assurances from county staff that the project list included money for circulator bus lines in various parts of her district, Miller asked her if "that makes you happy?"

"Well, it makes me real happy," she replied.

"Does that mean we get your vote?" Miller quickly asked.

Replied Murman: "One step at a time, Commissioner Miller."

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

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