Hillsborough transportation stalemate leaves rest of Tampa Bay in limbo

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn says without a 30-year tax, there’s no opportunity for light rail to go forward.
Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn says without a 30-year tax, there’s no opportunity for light rail to go forward.
Published May 22, 2016

TAMPA — Last month, seven Hillsborough County commissioners cast a vote that has implications beyond the county they govern and could shape how people move across Tampa Bay for several decades.

The commissioners voted April 27 against putting a 30-year half-cent sales tax for transportation on the November ballot. The commission could still ask voters to fund road and transit projects over 15 years, but that option remains uncertain.

Meanwhile, other stakeholders across Tampa Bay are watching intently as commissioners toy with a plan more than three years in the making. They are dependent on Hillsborough taking action in order to move forward with transit plans of their own.

"We're going to see the ripple effect of this vote for the next 20 years," Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said. "It's about more than just this referendum. It has a huge impact on any potential mass transit, rail in particular, throughout our entire region."

Pinellas Metropolitan Planning Organization executive director Whit Blanton called the vote "frustrating.''

"We seem to spend a lot of effort and a lot of time but we don't seem to gain any real traction," he said.

Just 10 hours after commissioners voted against putting a referendum on the ballot, representatives from the Florida Department of Transportation's local office said the decision complicates the department's ability to invest in transit projects.

"It makes moving forward with transit a lot more difficult," said Ed McKinney, program management administrator for FDOT's district office in Tampa.

Debbie Hunt, the district director of transportation development, was more direct about what the vote means for the area:

"With that going down, there's no option for transit choices in the foreseeable future," Hunt said.

Tampa Bay Express — a controversial overhaul of the area's interstate system that includes adding more than 50 miles of toll lanes to Interstates 275 and 4 — is the state's road solution.

Go Hillsborough was supposed to provide the plan for transit solutions, including potential light rail and expansion of the bus system and streetcar.

"TBX was the spine," Hunt said. "Go Hillsborough was supposed to fill in all around it: connections, intersections, transit, streetcar ...

"We need the transit part to work with TBX. It makes that part a lot more difficult, and it puts a lot more stress on the existing system because you don't have that relief."

The effects from April's vote — and a potential second attempt at a 15-year version — will be felt across the region.

Pinellas County attempted to pass its own one-cent sales tax for transportation in 2014. Even though the vote failed, the county still completed a study establishing light rail as its preferred transit option. Their plans call for it to go across the Howard Frankland bridge. But without action on Hillsborough's part, leaders are left wondering, "What will it connect to?"

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"It's always better when there's funding potential from both local governments and counties," Blanton said. "I think it probably makes it more likely that you'd have a cross-bay connection if you had a funding mechanism in place and a commitment from both counties to provide funding."

That disconnect highlights a larger problem of finding ways to help people travel around all of Tampa Bay while still relying on individual jurisdictions to plan, fund and execute transportation plans that work on a local and regional level.

What one county does affects the other — and vice versa.

"It's perfectly fine for us to have county-oriented transportation plans, but if people don't see that there's a regional component in that, I think it really loses the regional effectiveness," Blanton said. "I think people are tired of that. We're a mobile region and people want to move around."

The city of Tampa desperately wants to expand its streetcar line and build connections between downtown, Westshore and Tampa International Airport. But in order to get state and federal grants, the city first has to show local buy-in. That's hard to do without a county referendum since cities in Florida cannot levy their own sales tax hikes.

"I think, in essence, they threw the city under the bus. Or the lack of buses," Buckhorn said. "It was hugely disappointing. And I don't think that anger has subsided at all."

Without a 30-year tax, Buckhorn said there is no opportunity for light rail moving forward. It also puts at risk the expansion and modernization of the streetcar — a downtown transit option supported by powerful business players such as Lightning owner Jeff Vinik. The city is currently in the middle of a yearlong study to determine what that extension would look like, where it would stop and how many potential riders it could serve.

But the lack of a dedicated funding source jeopardizes the city's ability to raise necessary dollars for the project.

"My hands are tied," Buckhorn said. "It is a painful reminder that elections matter. If the legislature won't give me the ability to change the law (and authorize a city referendum), then the only people who can change the outcome are the voters who elect these commissioners."

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