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Hillsborough's transportation plan to hold 100 more public meetings to get voter input

Published Jul. 17, 2015

TAMPA — Hillsborough leaders said Thursday that they won't put the proposed half-cent transportation sales tax on the 2016 ballot without getting more public input on what kind of roadway and transit projects voters actually want.

Does 100 public meetings over two months sound like enough voter input?

The policy leadership group, a collection of county and city officials, has already spent two years trying to craft a transportation plan that they hope will entice voters. They've spent $1 million on consultants and conducted 36 public meetings this spring, in addition to a poll and online outreach.

But concern still lingers that this latest effort could go the same way as failed initiatives in Pinellas and Polk counties last year and Hillsborough in 2010.

Hillsborough County officials are determined not to repeat the debacle of 2010, when voters rejected a 1-cent sales tax referendum after opponents complained the plan didn't have enough public input.

The next round of meetings will focus on identifying a specific list of road and transit projects that would be completed in the first decade of the proposed 30-year tax.

Consultants from Parsons Brinckerhoff, the national firm spearheading the public outreach, will conduct two meetings at every county library. Those, coupled with meetings with homeowners associations and other stakeholders, could easily total over 100 in an eight-week period, according to County Administrator Mike Merrill.

Parsons Brinckerhoff will be paid $350,000 for the work in addition to the $1 million the firm already netted from previous outreach. The county will pay the lion's share of that, chipping in about $250,000. The rest will come from the cities of Tampa, Temple Terrace and Plant City in addition to the Tampa-Hillsborough County Expressway Authority.

Consultants will present a detailed list of projects to county commissioners at their Nov. 5 meeting. If the commissioners approve the list, they will set a Dec. 2 public hearing where commissioners will vote on whether to put the referendum on the November 2016 ballot.

"Whether for economic or quality of life reasons, the public recognizes that transportation is our most pressing issue," County Commissioner Ken Hagan said. "Like it or not, this is the only way to significantly address this issue."

But many leaders warned Thursday that their support of moving forward to continue developing the current transportation plan does not guarantee their support for that plan down the line.

"I want to make it clear: I want to see the detailed project list," Commissioner Sandy Murman said. "Whenever we take that vote, if my community and my district does not benefit from this plan, I will not support it."

Commissioner Stacy White said the county needs to provide more details and implement better land use policies and mobility fees before he can support the plan. He was the only member of the policy group to not vote in approval of moving forward with developing the plan.

Environmentalists and conservatives have called for more fiscal responsibility and searching for other alternatives, such as a gas tax or using money in the current budget, before levying a sales tax.

Both Merrill and Hagan firmly shot down those notions.

"Please, enough with the nonsense that we can simply reprioritize our existing budget to meet our transportation needs," Hagan said. "That's just simply inaccurate."

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

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