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  1. Transportation

Hillsborough officials: Put 1-cent transportation tax to vote in 2016

Published Mar. 12, 2015

TAMPA — If the Tampa area is to attract young professionals, families and businesses, transportation must be transformed, Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill said Tuesday in announcing a plan to make that happen.

It starts with this: Hillsborough voters agreeing in 2016 to pay an extra 1 cent in sales tax to help finance roads, buses, walkways and rail.

Merrill predicted, under an optimistic scenario, that if voters adopt the referendum they'll see light rail in downtown Tampa within seven years.

"We're talking about nothing short of changing the culture about how we travel and move around the county," he said.

A policy leadership group that includes Hillsborough county commissioners and the mayors of its three cities is set to review details of the transportation proposal at a public meeting Aug. 12.

Across the bay in Pinellas County, voters in November will decide on Greenlight Pinellas, a 1-cent sales tax aimed at improving both rail and bus transit there.

A similar tax-for-transportation referendum was soundly defeated by Hillsborough voters in 2010. As officials gear up to send the issue back to voters again, Merrill said they're focusing on engaging the public early. Tuesday's preview was a sort of coming out party in hopes of generating that buy-in.

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn has been a vocal supporter of Greenlight Pinellas. The prospect of getting a similar transportation plan in front of Hillsborough voters is partly why Buckhorn has backed that referendum.

"If we get Greenlight done, that's going to give us a lot of momentum moving into '16," said Buckhorn, who was away during Tuesday's briefing.

A working group has spent 14 months crafting a detailed list of hundreds of transportation projects in Hillsborough that would be helped by the 1-cent tax.

Merrill unfurled the list, nearly 4 feet long, at the briefing. In the coming months, the projects will be winnowed by public comments at several meetings, said Luicia Garsays, the county's chief administrator of development and infrastructure services.

Here are some of the ideas:

• Express routes for buses and light rail on a 5-mile corridor between West Shore Boulevard and downtown Tampa.

• Bus routes and light rail connecting downtown Tampa to the University of South Florida.

• Increased bus service along N Dale Mabry Highway near Raymond James Stadium.

• Improvements to the multi-use Bypass Canal Trail and a link that connects east and west Tampa neighborhoods to the Riverwalk.

• Upgrading and replacing bridges while widening and repaving roads in the county.

The entity that now manages the county's bus system, the Hills­borough Area Regional Transit Authority, would be formed into a new agency to make decisions on mass transit, including construction and contracting with private companies.

If the tax is approved, HART's budget would go from the current $86 million to $5 billion.

"If we're going to be serious and move forward with a transit plan,'' interim HART chief operating officer Katharine Egan said at the briefing, "we need a little more love."

Anti-tax group "Ax the Tax'' will oppose the plan, said the group's founder, Doug Guetzloe of Orlando, who has fought light rail proposals across the state for years and is campaigning against Greenlight Pinellas.

"This has to be the granddaddy of all boondoggles," Guetzloe said. "That's an extraordinary amount of money, especially for it to be directed at what they've outlined so far."

Guetzloe said money intended for rail should go entirely toward improving bus systems, which he believes are the more efficient means of transportation.

If the tax were to pass, one of the first steps would be to increase bus routes and install a GPS system so riders could track buses on smartphones.

After that, managed lanes on Interstate 275 — such as variable tolls or lanes designated for buses — and an express bus system would be put in place.

A light rail system using re-purposed streetcars or some other means would come later.

All told, the cost of the projects exceeds the estimated $6.1 billion that would be generated by the additional sales tax over 30 years. To fill the gaps, the county would need to apply for more federal and state grants, develop a greater reliance on tolls and look for public-private partnerships, Merrill said.

He said he couldn't yet estimate how the tax revenue would be split between projects, but did say that mass transit would be "a very significant share."

"I can't imagine it will be less than 50" percent, he said.

County Commissioner Mark Sharpe, an avid transit advocate who was at the briefing, said he's satisfied with the plan.

"I've been critical of the delay — I wanted it to move faster," he said. "But what we have here is a very methodical plan and has a great chance of success.

"It's as close to perfect as you can get," he said.

Times staff writer Richard Danielson contributed to this report. Contact Liz Crampton at ecrampton@tampabay.com or (813)-226-3401

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