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  1. Transportation

Tampa again comes up short in quest to hold city-only sales tax referendum for transit

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, foreground, and Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer listen in April to a state Senate committee discuss a bill to allow a city-only sales tax referendum for transit in both cities.
Published May 17, 2017

TAMPA — For the fifth year, the Legislature adjourned this spring without giving Tampa and Orlando something each city wants — the ability to hold its own sales tax referendum to help pay for better mass transit.

But at least this time, it was more interesting.

"We've never been as close," said Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, who has worked on the idea with other big-city mayors since the 2013 legislative session.

The idea made it out of the Senate as an amendment to a transportation bill. Buckhorn and Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer sounded out Gov. Rick Scott and came away encouraged.

But the proposal never made it to the fiercely anti-tax House of Representatives.

"The House had zero interest in tax increases of any kind," House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, said in a statement this week.

So the Senate stripped the amendment out of the bill before it went to the House.

Countywide sales-tax referendums to support transit have failed in Orange County in 2003, in Hillsborough in 2010 and in Pinellas in 2014.

Still, inside their respective counties, Buckhorn and Dyer said the transit measures won healthy support from city precincts that would have benefited from expanded transit systems.

The amendment inserted in the transportation bill in the Senate Appropriations Committee would have authorized Tampa and Orlando to hold their own referendums on whether to raise the sales tax up to 1 cent on the dollar to support expanded bus systems, rail or new roads and bridges.

"I wouldn't have had a problem letting other cities participate," Dyer said Monday. "We were just, as a strategy, thinking the narrower we kept it, the more palatable it might be to the House."

Buckhorn said the governor indicated he wouldn't oppose the measure as long as it had a referendum associated with it. Supporters also hoped the Legislature's 2016 decision to let Jacksonville hold a referendum on using a half-cent sales tax to plug a gaping hole in its city pension would bode well for the city-only transit idea.

"I don't mind (local officials) having a shot at it," said Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee. What the amended bill would have done, he said, is give the two cities the chance to make the case to their own communities. The bay area needs better mass transit, he said, and if voters approved, a piecemeal approach in Tampa "is better than nothing at all."

Buckhorn and Dyer both said they'd be back. In Orlando, a local-option referendum is seen as a way to pay for a third phase of the SunRail passenger rail system. That phase, going to Orlando's airport, could cost an estimated $200 million.

In Tampa, Buckhorn said the money could help extend and modernize the TECO Line Streetcar — an idea the city and the Florida Department of Transportation are now evaluating, and something Buckhorn says could be a first step toward an expanded transit system that includes rail. The money generated by a sales tax increase for transit also could help city officials put together a local match for the kind of federal transportation grants that play a key role in funding transit expansions.

"Transit is the one missing piece," Buckhorn said. "It's a piece we've got to resolve at some point. You can't keep your head in the sand and say that building more roads is our only option."

Richard Danielson can be reached at rdanielson@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3403. Follow @Danielson_Times

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