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  1. Transportation

Hillsborough transit advocates hope for wins in Pinellas, Polk

TAMPA — Hillsborough County leaders are carefully eyeing neighbors to the east and west as they prepare a potential 1-cent sales tax of their own to pay for transportation improvements.

County officials have time and again said the fate of any initiative in Hillsborough is linked to the votes Pinellas and Polk county residents cast in November.

"In no uncertain terms, all of us need to do whatever we can to help these two counties pass," Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said at a recent transportation forum sponsored by the Tampa Bay Partnership. "The successful passage (of these referendums) will allow us moving into 2016 to really come into that environment with a lot of positive support."

But if one or both of the ballot initiatives fail, leaders such as Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe said that should not prevent Hillsborough from pursuing a transit tax.

"There's absolutely no question, we must and will move forward," Sharpe said. "I don't want to minimize the impact of those other regions not being successful, but we are the larger of the counties. We have an obligation and a responsibility to lead."

Hillsborough took that initiative in 2010 when it first proposed such a tax for transportation. But voters rejected it, 58 to 42 percent.

"I'm not all nervous about what 2010 in Hillsborough means for Pinellas in 2014," said Pinellas County Commissioner Ken Welch, who also serves as chairman of the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority. "They took the first swing, and a lot of areas aren't successful their first time out. We've got a more fully developed plan, but we're also on a path to recovery in the economy in 2014."

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If approved by voters, the Greenlight Pinellas plan would increase the county sales tax by a penny, to 8 cents on the dollar, replacing the current property tax that helps finance the PSTA, a key talking point for proponents.

The revenue, along with state and federal grants, would be used to expand bus service by 65 percent and build a 24-mile light rail system between St. Petersburg and Clearwater, proponents say. It would all be running by 2024.

The Polk County plan, known as MyRide/MyRoad, would also establish a 1-cent sales tax to finance road maintenance, construction and transit options. The plan would fund a countywide bus system including service connecting Polk and Hillsborough counties through a route that goes to Lakeland, the James A. Haley VA Medical Center, Moffitt Cancer Center and Tampa International Airport. Another express route would run through Winter Haven, Disney World and Orlando. It does not include plans for light rail.

Chris Steinocher, head of the St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce and co-chairman of the Yes on Greenlight campaign, gave his best-case scenario: Pinellas and Polk pass their plans this year, and Hillsborough follows suit in 2016. That would send a message to the Florida Department of Transportation that a new span of the Howard Frankland Bridge should be built to accommodate rapid bus routes or light rail.

Steinocher, 50, said that if all goes well, visitors will be able to take a train from TIA to downtown St. Petersburg in his lifetime. Design work on a new span has not yet started, but construction is set to begin by 2019.

"If we miss this opportunity, we might build a bridge that doesn't connect us," he said. "And that's unacceptable."

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Many Hillsborough leaders have said that the 2010 referendum failed because it was a rushed project that did not adequately convey benefits to residents — especially those on the edges of the county. It's a mistake officials say they are intent on not making again.

"There's a direct correlation between this referendum and the economic health of our outer regions," said Sharpe, referencing businesses such as Amazon that rely on moving goods through the area. "We have to do a better job of explaining to residents that they themselves might not use these new routes but the products and those who visit will."

Just as Hillsborough would have to win votes in areas like Brandon and South Shore to pass a tax, the Greenlight campaign has a challenge in North Pinellas, where many voters are more conservative and less reliant on public transportation than their south county counterparts.

In September, Greenlight scored a key endorsement from influential state Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, who called Greenlight — and an eventual light rail line across Tampa Bay — critical.

The donor list for Greenlight, which has raised more than $830,000, includes big names from both sides of Tampa Bay: The Rays, the Buccaneers and the Lightning have kicked in tens of thousands of dollars. So have Raymond James Financial and the Home Shopping Network. The Hillsborough Metropolitan Planning Organization approved a letter of support for the referendum, and the Tampa Bay Partnership is holding an Oct. 15 fundraiser.

"The goal is to get Hillsborough invested in those two referendums because we really do feel like it will make a difference in how Hillsborough will move forward with its transportation plan," spokeswoman Christina Barker said.

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

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