Hillsborough commissioners approve $812 million roadwork plan despite calls for more transit

Bypassing transit, Hillsborough will spend the bulk on upkeep and traffic jam relief.
Published March 1 2017
Updated March 2 2017

TAMPA — A majority of Hillsborough County commissioners agree the day is coming when the county will have to make a sizeable investment in buses and other forms of mass transit.

But Wednesday was not that day.

Instead, commissioners voted 6-1 for a 10-year, $812 million transportation plan that is heavily focused on road work. First-year Commissioner Pat Kemp, whose top issue during the 2016 campaign was transit, was the lone dissenter.

The outcome was largely expected. The decision last year to set aside hundreds of millions from existing county revenue was billed as a stopgap measure meant to fill potholes and pour concrete. It was a compromise agreed to after the commission rejected a 30-year, half-penny sales tax surcharge.

"What we have here for today is by design a roads plan," commission Chairman Stacy White said.

With the vote, the county will over the next decade spend $276 million on road and bridge maintenance, $127 million for safety projects and $346 million for congestion relief, such as building and widening new roads and improving traffic signal systems.

Transit-related projects received $1.1 million: $750,000 to plan and design a ferry between MacDill Air Force Base and south county and $350,000 for a pilot program that allows residents to request a car ride to bus stops.

More than 20 residents spoke out before the vote in favor of a larger commitment to transit, calling for the robust bus and rail systems they see in other cities. Residents maligned the county's roads-only approach to transportation during the last half-century, warning it would push away younger workers and inhibit older residents who can no longer drive.

Some Tampa residents grumbled that nearly all of the money would be spent in unincorporated Hillsborough.

Lee Meach, an occupational therapist, told commissioners she works to help disabled people become independent and get back to work, "But if they can't drive, there's nothing I can do because the environment does not allow them to get around."

Meach, who said she moved to Ybor City to be in a walkable neighborhood, also noted: "Despite the fact that I can look out the (County Center) window and see my neighborhood, I still had to drive to get here today."

Kemp moved to ax several large projects in the 10-year plan, including the $97 million widening of Lithia Pinecrest Road — a contentious project that drew opponents who live along the two-lane road as well as backers in the Bloomingdale and FishHawk area who complained about the traffic there.

Kemp hoped to free up money to fast-track the ferry, expand the car service pilot program and to pump money into a Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority program that provides vans for people who want to carpool. She also wanted to study how the county could make a larger investment in the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority bus system.

"We cannot build our way out of congestion," Kemp said.

But Kemp was rebuffed by her colleagues, who acknowledged the need to expand transit but felt the county needed a dedicated revenue stream to support it. They did vote to study Kemp's suggestions and include transit considerations in future road studies.

Commissioner Ken Hagan said it was "extremely hypocritical and disingenuous" that some transit advocates speaking out Wednesday were against the half-cent sales tax hike last year, which would've pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into HART and other alternative methods to move people.

Kemp was among those who opposed the surcharge.

Commissioner Les Miller, who serves as chairman of HART's board, said he is working on a proposal to fund the transit authority's long-term plan that's "not a Band-Aid approach on a cancer, but a dedicated funding source that will get us 20, 30, 40 years down the road when we're talking about 2 million people in this county."

Said Miller: "Stay tuned."

Contact Steve Contorno at scontorno@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3433. Follow @scontorno.

Advertisement