At a recent meeting on transportation, Hillsborough County Commissioner Victor Crist said this about a proposal to hold a 2016 voter referendum on increasing the sales tax to fund transportation projects:
“I’m not sure we have enough time to do the leg work that needs to be done to generate the voter buy-in ... to get this passed.”
He and like-minded elected officials should give the public more credit.
Most residents need no education about the sad state of Hillsborough’s gridlock-prone roads or the lack of transportation options.
The proposal developed by the representatives from the county and the cities of Tampa, Temple Terrace and Plant City would add and improve roads, dramatically increase bus service and add some rail lines.
It would be funded by a 1-cent sales tax increase that would raise an estimated $6 billion over 30 years. A 2016 vote would hardly be a rush job.
And consider the math strictly for the county’s needs.
The county has a backlog of more than $1 billion in maintenance needs alone. Another $2.2 billion is needed to expand roads where congestion is most acute. And spending that $3.2 billion would only deal with the backlog of needs. It would do virtually nothing to improve local mobility.
County Administrator Mike Merrill says the current gas tax raises about $25 million a year, which is used to keep up with regular maintenance. The half-cent Community Investment Tax, adopted in 1996, has generated about $450 million for transportation projects through the years. Merrill says it will raise about $140 million by the time it runs out in 2026, but the money is already allocated for backlogged projects.
The county’s ad valorem property taxes go to public safety, social services and government operations. Impact fees do generate some additional millions, but their use is limited to the area affected by development.
There is simply no other available funding source to notably improve the county’s transportation network.
Likewise HART, which operates the county bus system, has little access to additional funds. Its $64 million annual budget gets about half its funds from ad valorem property taxes, and the rest from fares, and state and federal grants. Does anyone believe a steep increase in those sources is possible — or desirable?
So unless residents want to slog along with the same overwhelmed road system and inadequate mass transit system, another funding source will be necessary — if the community expects to grow and prosper.
Indeed, this is about more than improving transportation infrastructure. It is about making the community more efficient, modern and livable, which will bolster its economic prospects.
It is no coincidence that cities on the move, including Orlando, are responding to the marketplace demands for more transportation options, which are increasingly important to young professionals and seniors alike who want to free their budgets and their lifestyles from being tethered to a car.
These communities certainly are not idly awaiting the development of such promising but uncertain technologies as the “driverless” car — which would still require a person to be at the ready should a computer glitch occur.
This plan is not simply about improving transportation. It is about ensuring Hillsborough is economically competitive — indeed, it is being labeled “Transportation for Economic Development in Hillsborough,” which is accurate if unwieldy.
The leadership group behind the plan was representative of the county and has developed a solid blueprint for addressing key needs throughout it. It will be presented to the public in the coming months and can be refined to address citizens’ priorities and concerns.
This contrasts with the county’s last transportation-tax referendum, where voters had little time to review the plan and details were sketchy.
Hillsborough’s car-dependent transportation strategy has been a mess for decades. This plan offers a methodical way to make the county more functional and appealing.
Elected leaders should see that there has been enough dawdling. Now is the time for leadership and action.