ACCESS 2050: Mapping out Hillsborough's transportation needs and priorities for the next 25 years

At first glance - and second - there may not seem to be a connection between rap star Bad Bunny and Hillsborough County’s transportation needs. 

But as Hillsborough County Transportation Planning Organization (TPO) staff go about the once every-five-year process of updating the countywide long-range transportation plan, a chance to win tickets to the Puerto Rican rapper-singer’s upcoming May concert at Amalie Arena is one tool they’re using to entice the public to provide input on their transportation practices and priorities. 

TPO staff have also paid out of pocket for tickets to country singer Kane Brown’s upcoming Tampa concert, two seats at a 2024 Bucs game, a family four-pack to MOSI and a $100 Publix gift card. 

“We went so far above and beyond what other government agencies are doing to increase responses,” says TPO Executive Director Johnny Wong. “We can’t use government funds for that. We want this to be a success so we literally put our money where our mouth is.” 

Those who take the online survey, which will be accessible on the Plan Hillsborough website until mid-April, and leave their email are entered for a chance to win.

Access 2050

The ongoing update, dubbed ACCESS 2050 for the year it reaches, will map out the transportation projects and priorities of Tampa, Temple Terrace, Plant City, unincorporated Hillsborough County, the Tampa Hillsborough Expressway Authority (THEA) and the HART bus service for the next 25 years

It's important as a guide for future transportation projects and because specific large-scale road projects and more general transportation priorities, such as improving bus service, reducing crashes or expanding the paved trail network, have to be included in either this long-range plan or the TPO’s short-term project program, which looks out five years, to be eligible for federal or state funding.

“The feds are looking for planning consistency,” Wong says. “If there’s a project a local government wants to move forward with, it has to appear either as a goal or a priority in the long-range plan or the shorter transportation improvement program. … It opens the door to federal funding and makes a project more competitive when going for grants.”

Wong, who earned a PhD at the University of South Florida, says that’s one compelling reason to provide input.

“What we’ve been telling the public is this is your opportunity to help direct the future of Hillsborough County,” he says. “The chance to have an impact on the long-range plan only comes up once every five years so for us it’s a milestone. I don't know how many people in the county understand that. They’re probably not paying attention to the details of how government works. But this is a big opportunity to change direction and advocate for projects that impact their commute.”
Of course, money isn’t limitless and a spot in the transportation plan does not guarantee funding.

“Having projects listed in the plan is one thing, getting the money from state and federal sources is another,” Wong says. The more you’re out in the public sphere advocating for a project, the more support you can build around it, the more likely you are to get the money.”

TPO staff’s timeline has a 90 percent complete draft of the ACCESS 2050 plan released in September 2024. After more review and public input, the TPO board will vote on the plan on October 16th. That board is made up of five Hillsborough County commissioners, three Tampa City Council members, one elected official each from Plant City and Temple Terrace, the Tampa Hillsborough Expressway Authority Executive Director, a HART board member, the CEO of Tampa International Airport, the Tampa Port Authority Director, a Planning Commission member and a Hillsborough County School Board member.

Dealing with growth

Hillsborough County’s explosive growth - the county’s population has gone from about 1.2 million in 2010 to more than 1.5 million in 2022 according to the U.S. Census Bureau - has exacerbated congestion, especially in rapidly developing south county, adding to an estimated  $13 billion backlog of transportation needs.

The main local source of funding eyed over the last several years to try and deal with that backlog, a one-cent sales tax, was approved by voters in 2018 but later invalidated by the Florida Supreme Court after a legal challenge led by former Hillsborough County Commissioner Stacy White. White objected that the tax put too much money toward transit and successfully argued in court that it violated the Florida Constitution by giving the County Commission’s budget-making authority to an unelected committee. In 2022, voters rejected a subsequent sales tax referendum.

Meanwhile, the fate of approximately $562 million collected from the 2018 sales tax referendum while that court challenge played out remains uncertain. Governor Ron DeSantis wants the money to go to the Florida Department of Transportation to fund transportation projects in the county. State lawmakers have discussed some form of tax refund but have not put forward a detailed plan.

With local funding sources lacking to tackle the current transportation backlog, TPO staff projects the county's population to reach approximately 2 million by 2050. Wong says that is a “conservative” estimate. Still, that’s a significant spike that will add more traffic to clogged area roadways at a time when Wong says “infrastructure in south county is not keeping pace with the growth” and the increase to the tax base from the area’s growth is not enough to cover the cost of road infrastructure to accommodate the traffic from the area’s sprawling development. Against that backdrop, several south county road widening projects are being eyed as potential priorities in the update to the long-range plan.

“The long-term goal is to provide a lot of different transportation options to folks regardless of whether they live in the urban core, unincorporated county, or truly on the outskirts,” Wong says. “But in being judicious in using the money we do have, we have to face the reality of the here and now. Most people in unincorporated county are using cars. The long-term goal is to add that density to allow that transit service. But the facts on the ground don’t match that yet. We can’t overlook the fact that there is an existing need to alleviate traffic congestion and connect people to jobs.”

The widening of County Road 39 from State Road 674 to State Road 60 is one of the south county road projects under consideration as a priority in the ongoing update to the long-range transportation plan.Major future projects planned in the south county area include widening 6.2 miles of Lithia Pinecrest Road from Fishhawk Boulevard to Lumsden Road and a related widening of 1.3 miles of Bloomingdale Avenue. Other south county widening projects eyed as potential priorities include State Road 60 from South Valrico Road to the Polk County line; Balm Road from Clement Pride Boulevard to Balm Riverview Road; County Road 39 from State Road 674 to State Road 60; and an elevated extension of the Selmon Expressway to Big Bend Road that THEA is in the early stages of planning.

Wong says the elevated Selmon extension, which has a projected $1.8 billion price tag, could potentially accommodate a future bus rapid transit system, making transit a more viable transportation option for south county residents.

Transportation options

ACCESS 2050 also looks at ways to expand available transportation options in Hillsborough County by improving the HART bus service, expanding the paved trail network and investing in the transportation disadvantaged service for people who do not have access to HART.

“Hugging the boundaries of the city of Tampa we are evaluating a lot of transit projects- a loop from USF to Brandon to downtown, a connection to the airport, utilization of the CSX rail corridor to south Tampa,” Wong says. “We’re evaluating a lot of transit. It makes more sense to focus on the dense urban core. But we’re not ruling anything out in unincorporated county in the future.”A premium transit system connecting USF, downtown Tampa and Brandon is being evaluated as a potential priority project in the update to the countywide long-range transportation plan.

Planning for the future of HART service will look at scenarios like maintaining the current funding status quo and what HART’s future vision for transit would include if there were no financial constraints. The status quo includes a four percent annual funding increase for inflation and improves the frequency on several routes. Without financial constraints, HART’s vision improves frequency on more routes, adds 14 local/express bus routes and at least four new on-demand circulators that would “expand the bus service area and provide cost‐effective service to lower density communities.” The expansion of HART's TECO Line Streetcar system from Fort Brooke Garage to Palm Avenue is also under consideration.

Scenarios for expansion of the countywide trail network include focusing on regional corridors, which has a projected 25-year cost of less than $6.5 million, or working toward build-out of the full planned trail system, with a 25-year cost of nearly $49 million.

Equity and Resilience 

The long-range plan also looks at resilience to protect the transportation system from sea level rise and flooding and equity to improve infrastructure and address safety issues in communities and neighborhoods that have historically not seen the same transportation investment as other areas of the county.

The resiliency analysis says that 71 miles of roadway considered critical to the county's transportation network are moderately to highly vulnerable to extreme weather and climate change. Stormwater improvements needed to address that vulnerability are projected to cost $14.8 million annually or $297 million over 20 years. Roadway improvements like hardening pavement and sub-base, raising roads and shoreline preservation for those critical roads carry a projected cost of $67.4 million annually, or $1.3 billion over a 20-year timeframe. 

“The challenge is that raising the profile of roads is very expensive,” Wong says. “It’s almost impossible for us to retrofit roads that currently exist.”

The equity needs assessment is a new addition to the 2050 long-range plan. It looks at transportation disparities that negatively impact 13 communities around the county: Bealsville, Carver City, Dover, East Tampa and Orient Park, Gibsonton, Palm River-Clair Mel and Progress Village, Plant City, Ruskin, Sulphur Springs and University Square, Thonotosassa, Town ‘N’ Country and Pine Crest, the area near USF and Wimauma.

“In those disadvantaged communities we see that they’re suffering from higher rates of traffic fatalities; they’re suffering from worse congestion; their roads are not being paved as often; there are fewer street lights,” Wong says. “We came up with really quantifiable metrics to shine a light on the inconsistent application of funds across the county and generate some cost estimates of how much it would take to bring those disadvantaged communities up to the countywide average.”

In those areas, recommendations include increasing road resurfacing, filling the gaps in the sidewalk system, putting in more bicycle lanes and planting trees to improve the tree canopy along roadways.

Funding options

The long-range plan, and the public input survey now online, also look at funding options for long-term transportation and priorities. Options the TPO staff want feedback on include renewal of the Community Investment Tax, a half-cent sales tax expiring in 2026, the local gas tax, an increase to the property tax rate funding HART, the addition of express toll lanes to roads, replacement of the gas tax with a fee for miles driven, an increase to the drivers license fee, an additional fee to use rideshare services like Lyft and Uber, and the establishment a fee to use public charging stations for electric vehicles.

For more information, go to ACCESS 2050. This story is part of an underwriting agreement between 83 Degrees Media and Plan Hillsborough to help communicate and inform members of the public about what is involved and how they can participate.
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Read more articles by Christopher Curry.

Chris Curry has been a writer for the 83 Degrees Media team since 2017. Chris also served as the development editor for a time before assuming the role of managing editor in May 2022. Chris lives in Clearwater. His professional career includes more than 15 years as a newspaper reporter, primarily in Ocala and Gainesville, before moving back home to the Tampa Bay Area. He enjoys the local music scene, the warm winters and Tampa Bay's abundance of outdoor festivals and events. When he's not working or spending time with family, he can frequently be found hoofing the trails at one of Pinellas County's nature parks.