Nobody in Hillsborough County needs to be told the transportation system doesn’t work well — it doesn’t work for commuters, it doesn’t work for employers, it doesn’t work for pedestrians, and it certainly doesn’t work for the future. But Hillsborough voters can change that by supporting the transportation referendum on the countywide ballot Nov. 8. Voters from the cities to the suburbs have an opportunity to improve their commutes, make the roadways safer and strengthen the region’s economy.
Voters will decide whether to levy a 1% sales surtax for 30 years to fund transportation improvements. If approved, the tax will commence Jan. 1 and raise $342 million in its first full year. The money would be key in enabling Hillsborough to plug a $13 billion deficit in its transportation needs over the coming two decades. And it would help maintain the area’s quality of life and Tampa Bay’s ability to grow and compete.
Hillsborough’s road, bus and pedestrian network has been in poor shape for decades, and for nearly as long, political and civic leaders have tried to craft a balanced solution that serves the cities and suburbs alike. That’s where this referendum delivers. The single-biggest chunk of revenue — 54.5% — would be dedicated for general purposes and split among unincorporated Hillsborough and the three cities (Tampa, Temple Terrace and Plant City) based on their populations. Another 45% would be earmarked for Hillsborough Area Regional Transit, the county’s mass transit agency. And the remaining half-percent would go to the county’s Transportation Planning Organization to help with data collection, planning and grant funding requests.
This formula ensures something for everybody. For example, at least 27% of the general purpose portion would be spent on improving existing roads and bridges and reducing traffic congestion. At least 26% would be spent on relieving rush-hour bottlenecks and improving traffic flow, which could include building new intersections, roundabouts and turn lanes or using technology to expand capacity at intersections. Another third would pay for safety improvements to roads and bridges and for projects like sidewalks, crosswalks and trails that better protect bicyclists and pedestrians.
HART would use its portion to expand bus services, including express, neighborhood and circulator routes. At least one-fourth of its money would go to services that use exclusive transit rights of way, which could bring faster, premium connections throughout the county. HART would double its local bus service, expanding hours and cutting wait times, while adding new options like rapid buses. And it would finally have the local funding required to leverage state and federal grants necessary for expanding regional transit.
This broad-based approach is exactly what Hillsborough voters called for in 2018 in approving a similar tax. While the Florida Supreme Court eventually invalidated that levy on procedural grounds after a legal challenge, voters spoke loudly and clearly, approving the measure in the cities and suburbs alike with 57% of the vote. Since then, the need has only increased.
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The proposal would raise the county’s sales tax to 8.5% from 7.5%, meaning a family in Hillsborough with an average income would pay about $142 in additional taxes annually. While every dollar counts to households, especially in this period of high inflation, the plan could drive down transportation costs for commuters and help make housing more affordable. By making buses a genuine option instead of an empty ideal, commuters would be less car dependent. Households might forpercentgo a second vehicle, and they would be more insulated from the sticker shock of costly car maintenance. Better roads and intersections would cut the time drivers idle in traffic. Commuters could save money, enjoy better connections to job centers and access housing in more affordable areas. And a more efficient transportation grid would protect rural lifestyles across the county by reducing sprawl and the need for ever wider roads.
The measure also provides accountability by establishing a citizens’ committee to oversee spending and requiring an independent audit of the expenditures every year. At least every five years, the county commission would review the spending to ensure it aligns with long-range transportation plans, thus keeping these projects on track and local officials accountable.
This plan will make Brandon and Carrollwood safer, Tampa and Temple Terrace more livable, fast-growing south county better connected to established communities and the University of South Florida, Tampa International Airport, MacDill Air Force Base and other major employers positioned to grow into even larger regional economic engines. It is a smart investment in the daily routine for hundreds of thousands of people and in the aspirations of a growing metropolitan area.
The Tampa Bay Times recommends a Yes vote in the Hillsborough referendum on countywide transportation improvements.
Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Conan Gallaty. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.