Pay now or pay later for Hillsborough County transportation solutions

Jeffrey Siewert, an engineer who lives on Davis Islands and works in downtown Tampa, wants to leave his car at home when he goes to work and see more bike- and pedestrian-safe thoroughfares in the center city.

James Wilder of Temple Terrace is job hunting, and would like better bus service to and from Tampa.

Karen Peoples of Silver Oaks Apartments in East Tampa thinks there have been too many deaths on East Hillsborough Avenue, particularly around 43rd Street, and wants the road made safer.

And virtually everyone is sick of the daily jam-ups on Interstates 275 and 4, Dale Mabry Highway, Bruce B. Downs Boulevard, the Selmon Expressway, the Veterans Expressway and just about every other local major thoroughfare.

The question is, what to do about it.

Local government officials are proposing a new sales tax to finance a surge of countywide transportation improvements -- the Go Hillsborough project -- saying there’s no other way get the job done. That will require a vote of Hillsborough County residents, which officials are projecting for the November 2016 election.

If that’s not done, some county leaders say, the area’s traffic congestion will begin to approach Atlanta or Washington, D.C. stagnation levels, cramping lifestyles, frustrating commuters and throttling growth.

But the proposal may be in trouble.

It already faces a host of political problems, of which anti-tax fervor from Tea Party-style conservatives is only one. And that was before a controversy arose recently over how Hillsborough County awarded the contract to develop the plan.

Responding to that controversy, county officials have asked the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office to investigate the contracting procedure.

“It’s dead,” says Kevin Thurman of Connect Tampa Bay, an advocacy organization that favors more transportation options, after stories broke recently about the contract.

“You don’t send something to the Sheriff’s Office and then expect it to go on the ballot.”

Thurman charges that Tea Party activists harass anyone who speaks publicly in favor of the idea.

At least one county commissioner, conservative Republican Al Higginbotham of east Hillsborough, says there aren’t enough votes on the seven-member board to put a proposal on the ballot, and doubts there will be any time soon.

Others disagree.

County officials say they asked the Sheriff’s Office to investigate their own contracting procedure to prove its propriety, not because there’s any clear indication of wrongdoing.

“It’s premature” to call Go Hillsborough dead, says Democrat Commissioner Kevin Beckner, an advocate of transportation alternatives.

“The transportation infrastructure problem that has been there for 30 years is one of the most important questions to be addressed by the county commissioners. This (investigation) is a bump in the road. We will address it and move on.”

Pay as we go — don’t leave it for the next generation

The nature of lifestyles in Tampa and urban parts of Hillsborough County is at stake.

One of Mayor Bob Buckhorn’s top priorities is development of residential space downtown and creation of a “walkable” living space there.

“Young professionals don’t want to move to the suburbs now, they want to move to the downtown core,” he told a crowd in Pasco County recently. “It’s happening all over the country.”

Those “millennials,” he says, want to live within walking distance of retailing, services and entertainment, with easy access to public transportation – “They prefer not to have a car.”

Not all of those wanting to go carless are millennials.

“I want to be able to get everywhere on foot,” says Vance Arnett, 67, a semi-retiree and community activist in the Grand Central at Kennedy condos in the downtown Tampa Channel District, and author of a book titled “Urban Aging.” 

Arnett and his wife can drive, but prefer not to – perhaps knowing that one day they won’t be able to. He keeps a mental list of what retailing and services are available within walking distance, and advocates for more as co-founder of the Channel District Neighborhood Association.

County Administrator Mike Merrill says the issue is about “what kind of community do we want to be?”

“Younger, intellectual workers want more transit options. I’ve met with CEOs thinking about relocating jobs here. They love our community, but the one area we always fall down on is transit options.”

Comparable-sized cities, including Charlotte, Dallas, Denver, Phoenix and Austin, “all started this 25 years ago,” he says. 

But Merrill acknowledges that putting money into bus or rail systems instead of repairing and widening roads is a tough sell to the public.

Support exists for multimodal solutions

In polling done before work on the Go Hillsborough initiative started, even Tampa residents didn’t ask for transit. “They wanted roads fixed and they wanted new roads expanded or added. As a culture, we’re still very car-oriented,” Merrill says.

According to Go Hillsborough, that polling showed 52 percent support for a half-cent tax to meet transportation needs, 41 percent for a full cent, 36 percent for property tax and 18 percent for a gas tax increase.

The current proposal calls for a half-cent sales tax that would raise $117.5 million annually and $3.5 billion over its 30-year life. That money could draw another $881 million in state and federal grants that require local matching expenditures.

About a third of the money would go to each of three areas: transit, mainly bus rapid transit; new roads; and improvement of existing roads and intersections, including adding bike and pedestrian facilities.

It’s expected that 25 percent of the money would go to the county bus system, Hillsborough Area Rapid Transit, or HART, and the rest would be distributed to the county and city governments, including Tampa, Temple Terrace and Plant City, based on their populations.

Tampa would then be expected to devote 10 percent of its share to expanding the street car system, and the others 10 percent each to creating a bus rapid transit system.

Anti-tax opponents say the county should handle the problems from existing revenues by cutting what they say is unnecessary spending in other areas.

“Why should the county spend millions on more parks (that they then must also maintain) and pet projects when they have not been doing the basics of maintaining and improving our existing infrastructure?” wrote Tea Party leader Sharon Calvert on her Eye on Tampa Bay Blog

She disputes figures published by Go Hillsborough, saying, for example, that the Tampa area is the nation’s 11th worst in traffic congestion.

“The county must start appropriately funding our roads and infrastructure now using existing revenues,” she wrote, “and kiss any thoughts of a tax hike passing good-bye!”

Developers need to step up to pay impact fees

County officials say the problems are of such magnitude – some $9 billion in unfunded road construction and maintenance needs – that solving the problem with existing revenue or gas taxes is impossible.

The county can legally add up to five cents to its current gas tax, which Go Hillsborough estimates would produce $25 million a year.

But sales tax proposals face a political dilemma.

While anti-tax conservatives oppose any new tax, some transit advocates say the half-cent proposal won’t go far enough, failing even to begin creating a viable system of transit alternatives.

“With a half percent,” Merrill acknowledges, “they’re not getting the full transit system.”

It’s impossible to avoid spending most of the money on roads, he says. The county faces $9 billion worth of unfunded roads maintenance and construction needs, “not accounting for the 600,000 people who will move here over the next 25 years,” he says.

For that reason, the group of top city and county officials working on the initiative recently decided to reconsider a full-cent tax. 

“With a full cent you would potentially see more transit – primarily bus rapid transit and a more robust bus system,” he says. 

Reviving the idea of a full-cent tax, however, only inflamed the controversy, and Merrill took much of the blame.

But there’s yet another political problem.

Some liberals and environmentalists argue that the reason for the county’s problems is that for decades, county officials under the political sway of the powerful real estate development industry have failed to impose impact fees on new construction that would have helped the county keep up with transportation needs.

Having failed to make new development pay its own way, they charge, it’s unfair now to ask residents to pick up the tab with increased taxes on their consumer purchases.

While the Tampa Sierra Club hasn’t taken a formal position on the proposal, chairman Kent Bailey was surprised recently to find himself on the same side as Tea Partiers, arguing that a sales tax isn’t an equitable way to finance transportation needs.

“Using a sales tax instead of appropriate development fees is wrong,” he says. “Building houses way out in the county and then asking taxpayers to pay for the cost of providing them services isn’t cost-effective.”

Merrill doesn’t dispute that impact fees have been inadequate. Of $1.3 billion spent on transportation needs by the county over the last 20 years, he says, impact fees covered only 16 percent.

Since the fees were implemented in 1985, according to a county analysis, the “recovery rate” – how much of the cost of growth they paid – has declined from 80 percent to 12 percent.

“Our land use regulation really has historically promoted sprawl, growth that continues to go farther and farther out,” Merrill says. “That’s why we have 12,000 lane-miles of roads to maintain.”

For that reason, Merrill says, the Go Hillsborough proposal includes implementing a new system of “mobility fees” that would require new developments to cover transportation improvement costs and “disincentivize sprawl.” The tax wouldn’t go on the ballot unless the ordinance was adopted.

Regardless what was done in the past, he adds, “We are where we are now, and we have elected leaders who are willing to step up and do what’s necessary, ask people to tax themselves.”

Fix it now or pay even more later

Evidence about whether local residents would prefer a half-cent tax, a full-cent tax or no tax isn’t conclusive; critics dispute the validity of the Go Hillsborough polling.

Go Hillsborough has been holding public open-house meetings where citizens can get information about the plans and register their opinions.

It’s hard, officials admit, to get people interested. At three recent meetings -- at the John Germany Public Library downtown, and the Blythe Andrews and Robert Saunders libraries in central and east Tampa -- only a handful of people showed up within the first hour.

Go Hillsborough isn’t compiling total attendance or the views expressed, but the Tampa Bay Times reported recently that about 550 came to about two dozen meetings in August and September. Of the 245 who filled out surveys on their views, about 47 percent said the county should move forward with the full-cent plan, while 43 percent said no.

At the meeting at Saunders library, Yvette Lewis, a local NAACP official, critically scanned the maps of planned projects and wasn’t satisfied.

“There’s nothing in the center city,” she says. “Buses should be running every 15 minutes. Once again, we get nothing.”

But Peoples says she favors the full cent – “I’m for all of it.”

Siewert, at the downtown meeting, says the same. A half-cent would be “like taking only half your medicine,” he says.

But standing nearby, Darryl Creighton of Tampa asks what gas taxes would have to be to raise the same amount of money.

“I think a lot of people will have the same question,” he says. “A gas tax seems like the logical way to fund this.”
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