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  1. Transportation

Tampa Bay Sierra Club, Tea Party both skeptical of Hillsborough's transportation sales tax plan

Sharon Calvert wants people to take note of the differing groups’ agreement.

TAMPA — Skepticism about a proposed half-cent sales tax for transportation has members of two polar-opposite groups — the Tampa Bay Sierra Club and Hillsborough County tea party — agreeing with each other.

Though their reasons might be different, both groups have voiced concerns with the plan, which would ask voters to approve a half-cent sales tax next fall to fund roads and transit.

The executive committee of the Tampa Bay Sierra Club issued a statement Wednesday night saying it is not ready to support the sales tax and wants to see other changes put in place first.

"Critically needed reforms require no referendum," the statement said. "The Sierra Club of Tampa Bay urges the Hillsborough County Commission to change development policy, increase development fees and adopt the local-option gas tax before pursuing a sales tax increase."

Sharon Calvert, a transportation advocate and co-founder of the tea party in Hillsborough County, said the two groups have discussed the proposed plan and would like to see more "fiscal responsibility." Though the two groups have differing beliefs, there is some agreement here, and that's something leaders should take note of, Calvert said.

"When you have diverse groups that are opposing something and seem to be in agreement on some things, then that should raise some concerns," Calvert said.

County and city officials who are part of a policy leadership group crafting the plan for a 2016 transportation referendum have not yet decided whether to move forward with the half-cent sales tax option presented last month. The group will meet next week to vote on whether to support the plan and ask county attorneys to draft ballot language.

Hillsborough voters rejected a 1-cent sales tax to fund transportation projects in 2010. Similar referendums were soundly quashed in Pinellas and Polk counties last year.

Officials are hoping this latest iteration will have something for everyone. County Commissioner Ken Hagan said one thing that stood out to him when looking at cities that have passed transportation plans is the broad support from groups that typically disagree with each other. That sort of support will be crucial here if this plan is to pass.

"I think it's encouraging that they're sitting down together," Hagan said of the Sierra Club and tea party. "Obviously, I'm hopeful once the plan is fully outlined and the outreach is completed that folks will come together in support of it."

Kevin Thurman of Connect Tampa Bay, a transit advocacy group, said he hopes the Sierra Club executive committee members who voted on the statement consulted their membership before advocating for a gas tax for road maintenance.

"I find it very concerning and upsetting that the Sierra Club would require a tax for more money for roads before getting more money for transit," Thurman said.

Thurman said he was also surprised to see the Sierra Club moving away from partnerships with transit groups and aligning itself with the tea party.

Hillsborough's proposal is projected to generate $3.5 billion over 30 years, most of which would go to building new roads and maintaining current ones. County and city leaders were told they can choose how much of their share of the funds they want to dedicate to transit, which leaves that question open-ended.

"It's unclear to me, at this point, exactly what the public transit component of this is going to be," Tampa Bay Sierra Club chairman Kent Bailey said. "We are not going to support or oppose this referendum until we know exactly what it is."

County Commissioner Stacy White, who was endorsed by the tea party of Florida, said he, too, needs more information before he can support the plan.

"I think the common denominator at this point is unanswered questions and uncertainty that we still don't have enough data," White said. "I don't know that (the Sierra Club and tea party) are together for the same reasons, but the end result is I think both sides need to have a lot of questions answered before they can feel comfortable moving forward with that plan."

Hagan said "it is premature and shortsighted" for any group to take policy positions before the completion of public outreach and a defined project list.

"I appreciate them being engaged, and we need them to be part of this plan," Hagan said. "But I'm just confused on why any group would take any type of position prior to fully understanding what the plan is."

Contact Caitlin Johnston at cjohnston@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3401. Follow @cljohnst.

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