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Transit at center of debate of Hillsborough County's transit-less transportation plan

Commissioner Ken Hagan says a tax increase could help 
pay for transporta?tion needs.
Commissioner Ken Hagan says a tax increase could help pay for transporta?tion needs.
Published Feb. 23, 2017

TAMPA — There is a relatively small amount of money, about $1 million, for transit projects in the 10-year, $812 million transportation plan that Hillsborough County commissioners discussed Wednesday.

Yet transit dominated most of the two-hour conversation.

There are two transit-related items in the spending package: $750,000 for a study of a proposed ferry connecting MacDill Air Force Base to south county and $350,000 for a Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority pilot program for on-demand car service to and from bus stops.

As for the rest of the money? About $276 million will go toward road maintenance, $127 million for safety projects and $346 million for congestion relief, such as widening and building new roads and improving traffic flow.

For Commissioner Pat Kemp, the newest board member whose top issue during last year's campaign was expanding transit, that's too much for roads and not enough on other ways to move people around.

"Our Achilles' heel is transit. It's been transit for a long time," said Kemp, speaking out at length from the dais for the first time. "It's time for us to start committing our transit dollars. Just like we do for roads, put them on the same level of dignity and competition."

Kemp noted that the county will spend $97 million during the next 10 years to widen 3.7 miles of Lithia Pinecrest Road. That's equal to all of the budget for HART, the county's bus operator. She proposed committing $100 million to HART over the next 10 years.

It's "highly unlikely that's financially feasible," said Commissioner Ken Hagan, unless the county makes significant cuts to public safety or kills off another transportation project.

The county could pass a tax increase of some kind, Hagan noted, alluding to the half-cent sales tax surcharge commissioners rejected last year. Hagan wanted to put a sales tax hike on the ballot for voters to decide, but a majority of commissioners did not.

The transit dilemma was encapsulated by a lengthy debate over whether the county should fast-track a proposed ferry that would connect MacDill Air Force Base to south county.

Doing so would mean forgoing a $4.8 million Federal Transit Administration grant, adding local expense to a project that, if approved, is already expected to cost the county about $25 million.

But turning down the federal dollars would likely mean getting boats in the water sooner. The county must complete several lengthy studies to unlock the grant, and the preferred launching docking site in south county — the Schultz Preserve in Gibsonton — would likely face too many environmental hurdles for the feds to approve.

Several commissioners said they should wait for the results of the design and engineering study before making a decision.

"What's the rush?" asked Commissioner Les Miller.

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But Kemp and Commissioner Sandy Murman said it's already taking too long.

"We have more control over this project by not accepting the federal dollars," Murman said.

Commissioners will hold a public hearing March 7 to finalize the list of transportation projects.

"I'm going to anticipate that we have a good result going forward," Murman said, "and we can dance out of here saying we're giving good congestion relief and maintenance and safety on our roads."

Contact Steve Contorno at scontorno@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3433. Follow @scontorno.