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  1. Transportation

Hillsborough to recommend half-cent sales tax for transportation needs

Kathleen Scott writes suggestions on an interactive map of Temple Terrace during a March 10 public meeting at the Omar Lightfoot Center to gather input for a new transit plan. At right is Parsons Brinckerhoff senior planner Christina Kopp, who was gathering the information.
Kathleen Scott writes suggestions on an interactive map of Temple Terrace during a March 10 public meeting at the Omar Lightfoot Center to gather input for a new transit plan. At right is Parsons Brinckerhoff senior planner Christina Kopp, who was gathering the information.

TAMPA — Hillsborough County officials fear voters could once again reject a 1-cent sales tax needed to fund a long list of transportation needs, just like they did in 2010.

But maybe, officials hope, voters will go for a half-cent tax instead.

County Administrator Mike Merrill is set to present a new transportation plan to county and city officials today that will propose just that. The half-cent sales tax proposal is projected to last for 30 years and generate $117.5 million for transportation projects annually.

"I think it's a winnable number," Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said. "I think all of us need to temper our enthusiasm with the reality."

Despite public feedback in support of a 1-cent sales tax and recommendations from pro-transit groups to invest in transit and roads equally, county staffers and national consulting firm Parsons Brinckerhoff will present a conservative plan in hopes of appeasing voters.

And in Hillsborough — a sprawling county with a "car culture" — that means spending more money on roads and imposing a smaller tax, according to a consultant's poll.

County voters rejected a 1-cent sales tax to fund transportation projects in 2010. Similar referendums were soundly squashed in Pinellas and Polk counties last year.

Parsons Brinckerhoff estimated that the county's future transportation needs will cost $9 billion to $12.47 billion over 30 years. But according to the consultant's poll and focus groups, the support needed to pass a 1-cent tax to pay for all that just isn't there.

Instead, Merrill and representatives from Parsons Brinckerhoff — which the county paid $1 million to put together the plan — will roll out a scaled-back vision.

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 Hillsborough's future needs.

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.

Kevin Thurman of Connect Tampa Bay, a transit advocacy group, said that the money spent on transit and road projects needs to be about 50/50 to persuade pro-transit supporters to vote for the referendum.

"I do not feel like this is going to get people enthusiastic or be transformative," Thurman said.

Anti-rail activist Sharon Calvert of Citizens Organized for Sound Transportation said she's concerned that the added sales tax would span three decades.

"That's ridiculous," she said. "That will be an issue. It really puts taxpayers at risk."

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

Beth Leytham, communications director for the county's Go Hillsborough public engagement effort, said it came down to doing nothing or doing the half-cent.

"We need to do something," Merrill said. "We need to do it now. We can't waste any more time. And there's always opportunities in the future to take the next step."

Under the half-cent plan, 55 percent of the estimated revenue would go to the county and 25 percent to the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority. The estimated $881 million would allow HART to double bus service and build ridership.

The county and cities would be able to spend the money allotted to them as they see fit. That means the county could invest in Bus Rapid Transit, where a lane would be dedicated to bus service, while Tampa could modernize downtown's underperforming street car system.

But Tampa City Council member Mike Suarez, who is also chairman of the HART board, said the plan doesn't go far enough toward solving the county's transportation needs.

"It's not a transformative plan for transportation," he said. "It doesn't give enough options for people to go out there and make informed transportation choices."

Times staff writers Richard Danielson and Sue Carlton contributed to this report. Contact Caitlin Johnston at cjohnston@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3401. Follow @cljohnst.

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