Here’s why Hillsborough’s transportation system is failing | Editorial
We’re cheap, and residents get what they pay for.
Two failed transportation initiatives have seriously hurt Hillsborough County. JAMES BORCHUCK   |   Times (2015)]
Two failed transportation initiatives have seriously hurt Hillsborough County. JAMES BORCHUCK | Times (2015)]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published Aug. 2, 2023

A workshop in Tampa last week provided the starkest picture yet of the pain two failed transportation initiatives inflicted on Hillsborough County. The session made two things clear: The problem is a lack of money, not misplaced priorities. And without a new, meaningful and dedicated revenue source, the county’s roadways will only become more congested, dangerous and difficult to maintain.

Between now and 2027, Hillsborough County faces a $1.6 billion funding shortfall to build and repave roads, repair sidewalks and fix intersections and bridges, county commissioners learned last week. Ideally, Hillsborough should spend $65 million a year repaving 340 miles of roadway, county staff reported. But Hillsborough dedicates only $5.4 million to repaving, enough to cover 23 miles. That’s not even half of 1% of the county’s 7,400-mile network.

Same goes for sidewalks. The county should be spending about $13 million annually to repair 100,000 feet of sidewalks. But Hillsborough repairs only 4,000 feet of sidewalks a year. The county has 3,000 open requests for repairs across more than 950 neighborhoods, and work now dates to requests from 2013. Some 322 miles of sidewalks need attention. Adding to this insult: The county dedicates a paltry $550,000 a year for repairs, but it has paid on average $400,000 annually over the past five years to settle injury claims from people who’ve tripped or fallen on broken sidewalks. That is unsustainable. It’s also nuts.

Commissioners addressed these depressing figures in a budget workshop that served as a prelude discussion for renewing Hillsborough’s Community Investment Tax. Voters approved the 30-year, half-cent sales tax in 1996; the levy expires in 2026. Commissioners signaled last week that reauthorizing the tax would be central to financing Hillsborough’s transportation needs.

Renewing the Community Investment Tax is essential. But that alone won’t bridge the gap in Hillsborough’s transportation deficit. Think of it this way: Hillsborough has used $535 million from the tax for transportation projects over the last 25 years, but it still has $1.6 billion in unfunded transportation needs. And with costs for labor and materials rising, the gulf between what needs to be done and the money to pay for it widens. How will the county make up the huge financial difference?

That’s why the demise of two transportation referendums in recent years has proved so costly. The 1%, 30-year sales surtax would have generated $342 million in its first full year and raised more in two years for transportation than the Community Investment Tax did over the last quarter-century. Hillsborough’s mass transit system also would have received a big boost to expand services. Voters approved the tax by a 57-43 margin in 2018, though it was later invalidated by the Florida Supreme Court as a usurpation of government power. A similar tax narrowly failed in 2022 after a bad ruling by a Hillsborough judge caused widespread voter confusion.

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Commissioners will discuss new revenue options later this year. A good starting point would be to end the delusion that Hillsborough can wring what it needs from the existing budget.

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.