Hillsborough's tax-for-transportation referendum might not specify rail

“In terms of transit projects, it would be focusing on corridors rather than specific modes of transit,” Hillsborough County administrator Mike Merrill says.
“In terms of transit projects, it would be focusing on corridors rather than specific modes of transit,” Hillsborough County administrator Mike Merrill says.
Published March 12, 2015

TAMPA — If Hillsborough County voters are asked in 2016 to approve an extra sales tax for transportation, the ballot question might not mention the words "light rail" — or any other specific mode of mass transit.

In a move that sharply differs from the Greenlight Pinellas referendum, a Hillsborough plan that could be the backbone for a referendum here would refer only to "fixed guideways" — a term that includes bus rapid transit and all types of rail, including heavy, light or commuter.

The transportation plan, which an engineering and design consulting firm is being paid nearly $900,000 to complete by March 2015, would not speak to route alignments, station locations or modes of transit.

Instead, those decisions would be left up to directors of the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit authority, not voters themselves.

"In terms of transit projects, it would be focusing on corridors rather than specific modes of transit," Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill said Tuesday. "I don't think the referendum is going to refer to any specific mode."

The county's staff hired national consulting firm Parsons Brinckerhoff to steer them through developing a transportation plan and handling public outreach, including launching a new website, making presentations, holding public meetings and making other materials. The estimated cost for the work, which spans from August through March 2015, is $898,000.

A transportation policy leadership group, made up of county commissioners and local mayors, discussed the scope of the contract at a meeting Tuesday.

County Commissioners Mark Sharpe and Les Miller said it was imperative that the firm gather feedback from millennials and the county's aging population when crafting the plan.

Commissioner Victor Crist questioned Merrill and firm senior vice president George Walton on how detailed the plan would be on specific projects.

"The concern I have is once we meet with all these groups and once we lock into a plan, how secure is that plan and how flexible in changing that plan once the public has agreed to support what they think is going to come to fruition?" Crist asked.

Merrill said the plan and potential referendum would include projects for roadwork, transit, and pedestrian and bike paths. But while some specific projects would be named, a majority of the recommendations would dedicate funds to specific programs, such as repaving and intelligent intersections. The specifics, he said, would likely be left up to local jurisdictions.

As for the transit part of the plan, it would recommend fixed guideways along certain corridors, such as West Shore to downtown Tampa or Brandon to downtown — but not the specific mode of transit.

"It really is more a discussion of transit and do residents want to spend more money on transit, whatever form that transit may be," Merrill said in an interview. "And then we'd allow for a process beyond the vote itself to begin to weigh in on different module choices."

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This differs from the referendum in Pinellas County, which specifically mentions local passenger rail and bus rapid transit. Additionally, Greenlight Pinellas, which comes to a vote Nov. 4, has listed details and laid out maps on its website.

A vote was not needed to approve Parsons Brinckerhoff as Hillsborough's consultant. County commissioners had earlier approved $500,000 for such needs in the 2014-15 budget. However, the county is still determining where the other $400,000 will come from.

Merrill said it will likely come from HART, the Metropolitan Planning Organization and contributions from the cities of Tampa, Plant City and Temple Terrace. Future votes would be needed to secure that funding.

The consulting firm has done similar work for Seattle, Los Angeles and Denver. Locally, it has worked with Port Tampa Bay, the Tampa Hillsborough Expressway Authority and Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority.

While Walton said Parsons Brinckerhoff has not done work specifically for Greenlight Pinellas, the firm has donated $50,000 to the cause. It has also donated $500 apiece to some Hillsborough commissioners, including Crist and Al Higginbotham.

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