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  1. Transportation

With issues identified, Hillsborough transportation plan tackles money question

TAMPA — Do you want wider roads? An expanded bus system? What about better bike trails or smoother traffic flow? Okay — now which is worth your money, and how do you want to pay for it?

It's time to choose.

The third phase of Hillsborough County's transportation improvement initiative — called GO Hillsborough — is revving up this week, and its all about "making choices." Community members in Ruskin gathered Monday, those in Town 'N Country will meet Tuesday and so on, until 13 open-house workshops have narrowed improvement priorities and paired them with funding options.

Funding will likely include a tax, but the purpose of the third phase is to involve the community in selecting which tax, said Mike Merrill, the county administrator.

It could be a sales tax, a property tax or even a community investment tax, but each option has its limitations, and that's what Merrill wants to explain to residents — a conversation that didn't happen five years ago when voters rejected a similar overhaul transportation improvement measure.

"In 2010, a group of business folks got together and said, 'It's gonna be a sales tax, and it's gonna be for this stuff — what do you think?' " he said. "This time around it's very much at the neighborhood, grass-roots level."

At meetings, residents push stickers onto storyboards to show which improvement measures they like best. They circle problem areas with Sharpies on big community maps and ask staff members questions.

"There's no lecturing," Merrill said.

The first two phases of the initiative were essentially brainstorming sessions: identifying transportation issues — from potholes to problem intersections — and determining which ones the county can tackle.

Sara Nichols, of Plant City, said she wanted more bus routes for people who need rides to work or medical appointments.

"This provides a healthy, more prosperous community," she said in a survey. "Right now public transportation is not an option."

Like many county residents, Corlene Findley said her main priority is resurfacing roads.

"It is tearing up my vehicles and makes for a dangerous journey to avoid the potholes," she said in a survey.

The third phase will last through the beginning of May, Merrill said.

"Every day, we see value in things we believe we need," he said. "If you can identify the need and the value that goes with it, the payment part gets easier."

Contact Rachel Crosby at rcrosby@tampabay.com or at 813-226-3400. Follow @rachelacrosby.

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