Hillsborough TPO Executive Director Beth Alden talks transportation funding at Café con Tampa

On Friday mornings, civic and neighborhood leaders routinely gather at the Oxford Exchange on West Kennedy Boulevard for Café con Tampa, a speaker series focusing on significant issues in our region.
On this Friday, Hillsborough Transportation Planning Organization Executive Director Beth Alden appears to talk about the transportation funding backlogs the county and Tampa face. With a one-cent transportation sales tax back on the ballot this November, Café con Tampa draws its largest crowd since the onset of COVID.
During her presentation, Alden does not advocate for the sales tax increase. Instead, she details two funding scenarios in the adopted long-term countywide transportation planning document: one with and one without the one percent transportation sales tax voters approved in 2018, before a judge decided the citizen-driven county charter amendment improperly took away the County Commission’s decision-making authority on the use of public funds.
“The officially adopted plan does include a one-cent sales tax that would address the maintenance, the safety and the traffic management technology, the bus system, the greenways, and still have some funds set aside that we could use for road widening in targeted areas and fixed guideway transit in targeted areas,” Alden says. "This long-range plan is based on what people have been telling us for years that they want.”
Without the tax, approximately two-thirds of the spending in the long-range transportation plan goes toward the Strategic Intermodal System, the state’s priority list of transportation facilities important to the economy and mobility, and the State Highway System (SHS). 
Alden provides an unvarnished look at the current transportation funding situation. Maintaining and upgrading roads to current standards is a challenge countywide, she says. Current transportation funding is inadequate to ensure a state of good repair and meaningfully reduce crash rates, much less to upgrade technology, expand access to transit and walk/bike transportation, or widen highways.
“Hillsborough County and the City of Tampa are only resurfacing about one percent of their lane miles per year,” Alden says. “That means you could wait more than 70 years for your road to be resurfaced and by then it will have crumbled and must be rebuilt at double the cost. We have about 900 bridges in this county and about 300 are owned by the county. The ones owned by the county, about 91 percent will no longer be graded in good condition by 2030.  Forty-one percent of our busses are not in a state of good repair right now. There are 115 miles of critical roads vulnerable to storm surge and inland flooding. There are identified strategies to make them less vulnerable. We need to beef up the maintenance budget.”
Alden also gives a snapshot of the unsafe situation on area roadways.

“We had more than 250 traffic deaths just last year, pretty much the same as New York City, though they have six times the population,” she says. “We know how to fix this. We just don’t have the funding.” 
Alden stresses that the necessary funding is not going to come from local governments tightening belts or trimming other areas of the budget. The magnitude of the situation requires additional funding.
“The numbers point to, for resurfacing roads, we need about five times the current budget,” Alden says. “Safety, we need about three times the current budget; traffic management, about two times; bus service, two to three times the current budget.”
Civil engineer and transportation enthusiast Jim Shirk attended Café con Tampa. He rides his bike often as a means of transportation. 
“It’s scary to ride my bike; we don’t have the infrastructure here,” Shirk says. “Our town is car-centric and we are behind funding transit and safety. It feels like the Legislature is focused just on highway expansion. We must be the source of change. The chances are good for the one-cent tax to be passed but we need to spend it on transit not expanding roadways.”
A new report says pedestrians in Tampa Bay also face the dangerous situation Shirk sees on his bicycle. Smart Growth America’s “Dangerous by Design 22” report ranks Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater as the fourth most dangerous metro area in the country for pedestrians.
In a phone interview while on vacation in Amsterdam, Hillsborough County Commissioner Pat Kemp compares that city’s multi-modal mobility network to the situation at home.
“Amsterdam’s city limits and urban area combined have about 1.5 million in population, like us,” Kemp says. “There are numerous transportation options in this bicycle-friendly city. There are also trams, a metro, above-ground rail and ferries. For a metro area this large, Hillsborough County is the most underfunded county in the nation. Our transit infrastructure is barely on life support. We only have around 30 bus routes and 19 of them only operate hourly. There is a lack of walkability and safety for bicycles.”
Kemp says Tampa’s ongoing boom increases the need.
“There is a desperate need for infrastructure to keep up with the blistering pace of growth. The referendum is a step in the right direction for our transit, trails and sidewalks. We don’t need to compete with European cities; we can just focus on creating a good quality of life, making this a great place to live and visit.”
2018 All for Transportation monies
While the Hillsborough County Commission has placed a one-cent transportation sales tax on the ballot this November, a judge has ruled that the approximately $562 million collected before the 2018 All for Transportation sales tax was invalidated will be spent on transportation projects in Hillsborough County. While the money will be spent locally, the decision-making on the spending will happen in Tallahassee, with the state’s Legislative Budget Committee making recommendations to the Department of Revenue on how to spend the revenues.

For more information on the speaker series, go to Cafe con Tampa .
To read the countywide long-term transportation planning document, go to 2045 Long Range Transportation Plan.

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Read more articles by Michele Smith.

Michele Smith is a writer based in Tampa since the ’90s. She has a degree in International Business & Fine Art from the University of Tampa and has contributed to numerous start-up ventures in the Tampa Bay area. Her writing is influenced by a local and global perspective. Topics of interest include arts leadership, business development, creativity and innovation and wellness. Michele is also the Executive Director of the nonprofit Tampa Arts Alliance.