Hillsborough County leaders differ on transit tax approach

Published March 12, 2015

TAMPA — As Hillsborough County lays plans for a potential tax-for-transportation referendum in 2016, proponents are divided about how best to entice voters to approve a measure they rejected four years ago.

County Administrator Mike Merrill wants to avoid the snarl of 2010, when the hot-button term "rail" dominated discussions about approving an extra penny of sales tax to help pay for transportation projects. His goal is to build consensus by first asking people what their needs are — instead of jumping into a conversation about whether light rail is the best solution.

"We want to acknowledge it, but we don't want to go down the path where it's all about rail," Merrill said last week. "We really don't want to get into the habit of saying it's all about transit. . . . It's about fixing what we have. Repaving. Safety projects. Community projects. That has as much value as the transit conversation."

The result could be a ballot initiative that, in sharp contrast to those facing voters this week in Pinellas and Polk counties, doesn't mention any specific mode of transit. It's a move that makes some local leaders uneasy.

Tampa City Council member Lisa Montelione said this represents a "major shift" for the policy leadership group, a collection of local leaders who have been discussing transportation for the past year and a half.

"I was under the impression that the reason the group was created was to have specifics," said Montelione, who is also a member of the Hillsborough Metropolitan Planning Organization. "I'd been hearing that what we have to tell the people in order for them to support something is we have to give them specifics. Because one of the mistakes in 2010 is voters didn't know what they were voting on."

The county's staff hired national consulting firm Parsons Brinckerhoff to develop a transportation plan by March 2015 based on previous studies, an existing list of proposed projects and public outreach. But firm senior vice president George Walton said that plan will not speak to specifics such as modes of transit or a detailed list of road projects.

The firm, which is being paid nearly $900,000, will construct a plan that narrows the list of existing projects and then groups them into programs, such as sidewalk maintenance, intersection improvements or repaving. It will also include a framework for timing, such as for projects that can be completed within five years or for others that would take more than 10.

The plan will be specific when it can be, Walton said, but will otherwise focus on categories of service. When it comes to transit, the plan will recommend "fixed guideways" along certain corridors, such as West Shore to downtown Tampa or Brandon to downtown — but not the specific mode of transit.

For Montelione and others, that's not enough.

"It doesn't seem like anything we don't already have or don't already know," Montelione said. "I haven't heard anything new. The only thing different is that they're going to go out and ask the public, which the MPO has already done in the Imagine 2040 plan."

But Hillsborough Commissioner Mark Sharpe said he expects to get an exceptional, methodical product from Parsons Brinckerhoff that starts with a "foundation of why and works toward the how" instead of mistakenly jumping to the conclusion that one particular mode is the solution.

Keep up with Tampa Bay’s top headlines

Keep up with Tampa Bay’s top headlines

Subscribe to our free DayStarter newsletter

We’ll deliver the latest news and information you need to know every morning.

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options

"Rather than going like we did in the past — 'Everybody else has light rail, why don't we have light rail?' — that's not the case this time," Sharpe said.

"It really needs to be based upon a careful analysis of our own build-out, how we're constructed, how we maintain what we currently have, and how best to connect our key economic development areas along defined corridors using current and future technology."

Although Sharpe says that makes sense for a transportation plan to be presented in March 2015, he believes voters need to see more specifics when presented with a referendum in 2016.

"People out there will say, 'Voters won't vote for something as foggy as fixed guideway,' and I tend to agree, we need specificity," Sharpe said. "I think that by the time we get to that conversation (about ballot language), we're going to have a very thorough understanding of what the expectations are of the citizens and to provide the specificity necessary to be successful.

"We're not going to out there with a mystery."

Contact Caitlin Johnston at or (813) 661-2443. Follow @cljohnst.