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  1. Transportation

Hillsborough puts 1-cent transportation sales tax back in play

Community members attend a Go Hillsborough meeting in Town 'N County. The meeting was one in a series aimed at developing a countywide transportation plan to fix overcrowded roads and improve limited transit offerings.
Published Sep. 1, 2015

TAMPA — A 1-cent sales tax for transportation is back on the table in Hillsborough County.

Two months after Go Hillsborough officials unveiled a transportation plan built around a half-cent sales tax, the county's transportation leadership group said Monday that it wants residents to also consider a full penny-on-the-dollar sales tax as another round of community meetings begin.

The idea is to show the community the stark differences in what the two plans could fund, specifically when looking at a project list for the first 10 years that the sales tax would be in effect.

County Administrator Mike Merrill said officials received strong feedback in support of putting the half-cent option on the 2016 ballot but also recognized that the 1-cent tax would have a more significant impact on solving the county's transportation woes.

The sudden re-emergence of the 1-cent plan, Merrill said, does not mean the county is backtracking on the recommended half-cent plan.

"We're not going backwards. We're just doing a reality check for people," he said. "We thought we should at least show what we could do with a full percent because that's where this vision started."

Early in the planning, conversations centered on the concept of a 1-cent sales tax. So when polling indicated that a half-cent tax might have a better chance of passing, the project list had to be pared significantly.

Premium transit in the county, such as light rail, was scrapped. Nearly $400 million in road expansion projects and plans for at least 10 intersection improvement were cut. And the vision for the county bus system was scaled back dramatically, dropping plans for nine new express routes, two bus rapid transit routes, and expanded weekend service and increased frequency on existing routes.

"Now, we want to make sure that our citizens … understand what a half-percent actually can fund," Merrill said, "and the critically important projects it cannot."

While asking residents to reconsider a full-cent option after spending two months pushing the half-cent plan may seem like the county is muddling its message, Tampa Bay Sierra Club chairman Kent Bailey said he'd rather see those conversations happen now if it leads to a stronger plan with more support.

"November of 2016 is a long way off," Bailey said. "I think there's plenty of time to get it right and plenty of time for people to learn and make up their minds about the proposal."

The initial half-cent plan released in June faced scrutiny from advocacy groups across the board. Sierra Club, Connect Tampa Bay and the Hillsborough County tea party were all skeptical — for their own reasons — when the plan was unveiled.

Though county officials said the half-cent plan received more support in polling, that was only one measure of what voters wanted. The opinions conveyed at meetings, telephone town halls and online showed many in the public doubted the half-cent option was the right way to go.

"They thought they would have more support than they did," said Kevin Thurman, executive director of Connect Tampa Bay. "I think they assumed everyone who would vote for a 1-cent would vote for a half-cent, and after listening to the community, they're realizing that might not be true."

So city and county leaders will hold another round of community meetings starting this week to parse which option has the best chance of succeeding. The meetings will span two months and take place at local libraries.

The meetings will not be as interactive as previous rounds, said Bob Clifford of Parsons Brinckerhoff, the national consulting firm hired to manage public outreach and drafting the plan. Instead, the focus will be on evaluating the project lists for the first 10 years of the tax under the half-cent option and the full-cent option.

"The idea is to make sure people understand the difference of what you can get with the half and here's what you can potentially get with the full," Clifford said. "We want to make sure there's no expectations or misunderstandings of what a half-cent provides."

The half-cent proposal is projected to generate $3.5 billion over 30 years, whereas a full-cent tax would double that revenue.

The county's 10-year project list for the half-cent plan includes funding bus rapid transit in south county and Brandon, a ferry from south county to MacDill Air Force Base, automated traffic management systems that ease congestion at 26 intersections, and $276 million in road improvements including sections of Lithia Pinecrest Road, Apollo Beach Boulevard, Westshore Boulevard and Orient Road.

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

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