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Hillsborough would upgrade bus service if high court upholds new tax. Here's how.

Riders gather at a Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority bus stop at the University Area Transit Center in June. Board members are hoping to bring back previously cut routes and run buses more frequently if the Florida Supreme Court upholds the 1 percent transportation sales tax approved by voters in November. [LUIS SANTANA | Times]
Published Aug. 5

TAMPA — The Florida Supreme Court has yet to decide whether Hillsborough County's transportation sales tax is legal, but local transit officials are already deciding how they would spend the money if it comes in.

Their vision includes reinstating three bus routes, running some routes more often on nights and weekends, and studying new services such as an extended Tampa streetcar and dedicated bus lanes on Florida and Nebraska avenues. But the cash-strapped Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority can only pay for those changes if the court upholds the tax voters approved in November.

RELATED STORY: Florida Supreme Court to decide future of Hillsborough's transportation tax

The charter amendment residents voted on would send 45 percent of revenue from a 1 percent sales tax to the agency. The tax is expected to raise $280 million in the first year, which has the transit agency poised to more than double its existing budget of $80 million.

A circuit court judge ruled this summer that the tax was constitutional, but that the predetermined spending allocations — such as the one sending almost half the money to the transit agency — were not. After multiple appeals, the future of the tax will be decided by Florida's highest court.

The eight-month legal battle has generated uncertainty over the tax's future and made it more difficult for local governments and transportation agency's to move forward with plans.

Hillsborough's transit agency is preparing a baseline budget for the next fiscal year, but also lining up a program of projects it can add to the mix should the tax money come through. In addition, the circuit judge struck many of the duties of an oversight committee charged with reviewing project lists for the tax revenue.

Hillsborough's transit CEO Ben Limmer said his agency is still required to submit their project lists by Sept. 30. Board members reviewed a draft of that list at a meeting Monday, and will vote next month on whether to submit it.

"It looks like you're fleshing out a good plan to present to the (oversight committee)," board member Adam Harden said.

The agency would spend $4.4 million restoring bus service along Sligh Avenue, Palmetto Beach and South Tampa that was cut in 2017 as part of a system-wide overhaul known as Mission Max. "I could not be more excited to be able to deliver on a promise that we made to voters," Limmer said.

About $2 million would pay for running some routes every 30 minutes on the weekends: route 42/45 near the University of South Florida, route 15 on Columbus Drive, route 32 on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and route 9 on 30th Street. Route 30 in South County would see a run every hour on the weekends.

Weekday frequency will also see a bump on some routes. Spending close to $4 million would have buses running every 15 minutes on Kennedy Boulevard and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, and every 30 minutes in the University Area and along 22nd Street.

"This is only the beginning of what's going to be a significant roll out of additional services over the next few years," Limmer said after the meeting. "These are the highest priority bus services that we've heard our customers wanting to see here."

RELATED STORY: Despite pleas, HART okays bus system cutting 20 percent of routes

The changes would require 16 additional buses and 56 more full-time employees by the end of 2020.

The charter amendment required the transit agency spend 35 percent of its share of the tax revenue on expanding public transit options. Staff said that portion of the money would be spent on a combination of expanding the streetcar in downtown Tampa, creating a new bus rapid transit line using dedicated lanes on Florida and Nebraska avenues, and looking at additional transit corridors such as the CSX rail lines and other potential dedicated bus lanes.

Tyler Hudson, chair of the advocacy group All For Transportation that helped pass the tax, praised the transit agency for planning to restore bus routes, adding thousands of additional service hours and pushing forward on new transit options.

In a statement, he called the project list a "strong start."

Contact Caitlin Johnston at cjohnston@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst.

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