Hillsborough should start spending the transportation tax | Editorial
It’s entirely in keeping with the law and the voters’ will.
Traffic backs up on Gandy Boulevard in Tampa between the Selmon Expressway and Gandy Bridge during evening rush hour in 2015. [JAMES BORCHUCK  |  Times] 
Traffic backs up on Gandy Boulevard in Tampa between the Selmon Expressway and Gandy Bridge during evening rush hour in 2015. [JAMES BORCHUCK | Times] 
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published Feb. 7, 2021

It’s been 824 days since Hillsborough County voters overwhelmingly approved a new transportation tax, 601 days since a circuit judge upheld it and 369 days since the Florida Supreme Court heard an appeal to kill it. Over that same time, consumers have paid $472 million into the transportation tax fund, not a penny of which has gone to fill a single pothole, to build one additional turn lane or to expand bus service one extra mile. Hillsborough officials have a legal right and a practical imperative to honor the voters’ will, and they should start spending the tax proceeds without further delay.

The reluctance of local governments in Hillsborough to spend the money is understandable. A legal challenge to the one-cent sales surtax, filed by Hillsborough County Commissioner Stacy White, is still pending before the Florida Supreme Court, more than a year after oral arguments in the case. Attorneys have cautioned that area governments could be liable for any expenditures if the high court ultimately invalidates the tax. At the very least, an unfavorable ruling could complicate the disposal of taxes already collected. In an abundance of caution, local agencies have decided not to spend the money, which as of Jan. 27 totaled $472,150,652.84.

But there comes a time when uncertainty should take the back seat to necessity. We don’t deny the risk in any lawsuit. But the history, and the record, matter. More than 57 percent of voters approved the tax in 2018. Nearly 283,000 voters from every corner of the county made their voices heard in calling for a better, safer transportation system. The vote was the culmination of decades of civic yearning for a more functional transportation system in the cities and suburbs alike. The only court that has ruled on a legal challenge to the tax found it lawful and constitutional. “It is evident that the voters of Hillsborough County desire to improve transportation needs,” Hillsborough Circuit Judge Rex Barbas wrote in a June 17, 2019 ruling. “It is further obvious to this court that the electorate made their desires clear.”

As it stands, the tax was legally enacted, passed judicial muster and has been dutifully collected for the past two years. At what point should voters expect that the will of the majority be carried out? Consumers, who are paying the tax, whether they voted for it or not, deserve to see something for their money. By holding back, local agencies have effectively allowed the opposition — which lost at the ballot box, and lost again in court — to hold up the outcome of an election. Voters delivered at the polls, and now it’s government’s turn to repay the faith by addressing Hillsborough’s huge backlog in unfunded transportation needs.

There’s no shortage of shovel-ready projects to fund; staff from local governments in Hillsborough have drawn up extensive lists, calling for hundreds of millions of dollars to resurface roads, repair bridges, add and lengthen turn lanes, improve intersections, build sidewalks and bike paths and perform other work. Taxpayers would see their money put to work on improvements that were tangible and that offered quick relief. And in an economy reeling from the coronavirus pandemic, the spending would amount to a local stimulus, creating jobs, generating additional taxes and churning millions of dollars across the region.

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Hillsborough agencies have shown restraint. But it’s time to put a political and legal victory to work. There is no bad faith involved here; the money would be spent on transportation projects as the referendum envisioned. Spending the money is important, but so is reclaiming the timetable for a better quality of life. The county has waited long enough.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, editorial writers John Hill and Jim Verhulst, and Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news


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