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  1. Transportation

Hillsborough hopes 10-year slate of transportation projects will entice voters in 2016

Hillsborough County staff presented a transportation plan to county and city officials on June 11 that, if passed, would bring in more funding for transit options, such as MetroRapid buses. The plan calls for a half-cent sales tax referendum to be on the ballot in fall 2016.

TAMPA — Voters in Hillsborough County should have a much stronger sense of what transportation projects will be built than they had in 2010 if they approve a 30-year sales tax for road and transit projects.

County Administrator Mike Merrill presented a new transportation plan to city and county officials on Thursday based on a half-cent sales tax that would generate $117.5 million for transportation projects annually.

But before the Hillsborough County Commission decides whether to put that referendum on the ballot in fall 2016, it will first review a list of projects set to be built over the first 10 years of the sales tax.

Hillsborough voters in 2010 soundly defeated a 1-cent sales tax to fund transportation needs. Voters in Pinellas and Polk counties rejected similar referendums last year.

But Merrill and representatives from national consulting firm Parsons Brinckerhoff believe that this latest plan can entice enough voters within the cities and the unincorporated parts of the county to win at the ballot box in 2016.

The consultants polled 600 county residents in April. The polling showed that 52 percent would vote for a half-cent sales tax, while 43 percent said they would vote for a 1-cent sales tax.

So officials went with the half-cent.

"We just can't afford to screw this up," said County Commission Chairwoman Sandra Murman. "Transportation is our No. 1 missing factor when (corporate) headquarters come to this community.

"It's our vulnerability."

By asking for less tax revenue and offering a specific list of projects funded by the half-cent tax, county staffers hope this plan will be more appealing to voters in 2016 than the amorphous plan that was offered in 2010 — and then shot down by the electorate.

County and city officials who are part of the policy leadership group will meet July 16 to decide whether to go forward with the proposal. If so, county commissioners will authorize attorneys to draft ballot language for a 2016 referendum.

Then county staffers will get the go-ahead to organize 12 public meetings. They'll work with community members to put together a list of projects people most want to see completed within the first decade of the 30-year tax.

Staffers will use that community feedback to present a list of projects to county commissioners in October.

Those projects could include new roads, intersection improvements, Bus Rapid Transit, express bus service and even ferry service, said Bob Clifford of Parsons Brinckerhoff.

County residents can also expect to see the backlog of road maintenance projects — totaling more than $750 million — to be completed within those first 10 years, Merrill said. The idea is to address maintenance issues immediately, before delving too far into new projects.

"I agree the right choice is to fix roads, tackle our maintenance problem and improve bus transit ridership while positioning our community for some type of premium or light rail transit in the future," said Commissioner Ken Hagan, who supports the plan.

Officials will also need to decide whether Parsons Brinckerhoff will be part of the continued public outreach. The consulting firm was paid $1 million for the public outreach work it has undertaken, but Merrill said additional funding would be needed to start the next series of meetings.

Thursday's presentation hit heavily on the need for the county to ensure that developers pay an increased and equitable share of their impact on transportation. Of those polled, 74 percent said they would be more likely to vote for the tax increase if they knew the county was requiring developers to pay a larger fee.

"We have to be resolute in setting meaningful land-use policies," Commissioner Stacy White said. "I'm trying to get to a 'yes' on a meaningful transportation plan, but I'm going to need to see some more concrete plans."

The new proposal is projected to generate $3.5 billion — 61 percent less than the $9 billion that the consultant said was the most conservative estimate of the county's future needs.

Just over a third of that $3.5 billion will go to transit and the rest will be used to build roads, maintain existing ones, and pay for bike and pedestrian improvements.

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

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