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Hillsborough’s Transit Tax: What’s At Stake?





For Brian Seel, the vote "for" or "against"  an increase in sales taxes to fund the new transit plan in Hillsborough County all comes down to this:  What kind of place do you want to live in 10, 20 or 30 years from now?

Seel, a 26-year-old construction manager at a Tampa-based construction firm, isn't just talking about Tampa Bay's traffic -- increased congestion, gridlock, unexpected delays.  He's looking at the bigger picture of quality of life and lifestyle.  That includes thinking about the kind of community that might attract bright, new talent.

"It's about embracing the long-term vision," says Seel, who grew up in Clearwater, went to the University of Florida and then graduate school at Georgia Tech.  After college, he stayed on in Atlanta to experience the big city and the opportunities.

Now he's back in Tampa, and among young, college-educated professionals who see the upcoming Hillsborough County referendum as critical to their future.

"Not only will we be paying for this, but ultimately we will be the ones benefitting from it," says Seel.  

The Hillsborough transit plan, he says, is an opportunity to set the stage for a different kind of growth.  

"What we are trying to do is create healthier, more livable neighborhoods," says Seel.  "Atlanta, Portland, Phoenix, all these cities have really cool places to live where you don't need a car to get to work, go out to eat or see a sports game.  We have a few places like that; Hyde Park, South Tampa, downtown St. Pete.  But to really pursue that type of lifestyle requires mass transit."  

After years of debate about how to move people and goods in an area that is already congested and expected to get worse, lawmakers approved a plan earlier this year. Soon, Hillsborough voters will have their say.

On November 2, a vote in favor of the referendum will increase the county sales tax by one percent, taking it from seven to eight percent.  According to the Hillsborough County Metropolitan Planning Organization, the cost to a typical household would be approximately $12 a month.

The tax would not apply to groceries or medicine.  For large purchases, it would be levied on only the first $5,000.  And because it's a sales tax, not a property tax, everyone, including visitors and tourists, will do their share to chip in every time they make a purchase.  

Proponents like Moving Hillsborough Forward, a grass roots advocacy group of businesses and community leaders, say the plan tackles a number of critical issues, making Tampa more competitive when it comes to jobs and  preventing the nightmare of even worse traffic jams in the future as the population continues to swell.  Opponents point to the negative effect of more taxes in a down economy.

But what exactly does the plan call for and who will benefit?  In other words, what's at stake here?   

For Better Roads, More Buses And Light Rail

Monies generated from the sales tax increase will be divided among three key areas:  roads, buses and light rail. According to HART (Hillsborough Area Regional Transit), federal and state grants will provide matching dollars for the transit portion of the plan.  

Here's how it all breaks out.  

Twenty-five percent of the funds will pay for road improvements, bike lanes and pedestrian crosswalks. Bruce B. Downs Boulevard, U.S. 301 and Van Dyke Road are among 31 roads to receive funding.

Thirty-two percent will go toward buses, helping HART dramatically boost service. That means putting more buses on the road, introducing new express buses and flex service "circulators," as well as increasing the number of bus routes. The goal is to make bus transportation a viable option by giving riders faster travel time, more frequent pick-ups and reduced wait times. Expect to see ramped up service connecting the county east to west and north to south.  

Forty-three percent of the revenue will fund light rail. The plan calls for street-level electric trains that will travel along major corridors connecting the University of South Florida and New Tampa to downtown, downtown to Westshore and Tampa International Airport, and eventually downtown to Brandon, South Tampa and northwest Hillsborough. The projected 46 miles of light rail would be built in phases.  

Connecting To High-Speed Rail

What's the difference between light rail on the Hillsborough referendum and the Florida High Speed Rail?  

Federal government stimulus dollars will fund a high-speed train that starts in downtown Tampa and goes east to Orlando, with a stop in Lakeland. At some point, the high-speed train may connect to local transit stops, but that's in the future. So is the idea of a regional rail line connecting Hillsborough with the entire Tampa Bay region.

Ashleigh Keelean, a sophomore at USF majoring in environmental science and policy, is a student spokesperson for the transit project.

Keelean lives in New Tampa and commutes daily to school, a frequent scenario for many USF students eager to see the transit referendum pass, she says.  Students are encouraged to find off-campus housing because dormitory space is limited. That makes transportation a big issue. 

"Right now students are restricted to certain modes of transportation," says Keelean. "Riding a bike in this area is dangerous and even pedestrian safety is a problem because of traffic. It's impossible to get around if you don't have a car."

Helping reduce congestion on the roads, adding safety enhancements for cyclists and pedestrians, and improving bus service will be a big benefit to USF students, faculty and staff, she says.

Both Keelean and Seel, who works at Ajax Building Corp., are also enthusiastic about the concept of mass transit being a catalyst for channeling future growth around light rail stops, which would create small mixed-use developments with higher density throughout the county.  

The new Encore project is a good example. Development of Encore is being led by a public-private partnership that is helping revitalize a 26-acre parcel between downtown Tampa and Ybor City.  It's within walking distance of the planned high-speed rail station and a light rail stop at the north end of downtown Tampa.  At build-out, Encore plans call for some 1,500 affordable rental apartments, offices, retail, a grocery store, a hotel and a school.  Groundbreaking took place earlier in 2010.

"No one wants to turn Tampa into New York City or Boston," says Seel.  "The transit plan is not meant to facilitate that.  It's simply a way to help us grow in a better pattern suited to the future of our region – a great tool to change the way we build new communities."

Janan Talafer is a St. Petersburg-based freelance writer with a passion for swing dancing, tropical gardening and collecting shells.  She shares a home office with her faithful cat Milo and dog Bear. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.

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