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Hillsborough transportation tax draws prominent foes among Democrats

Conservatives are in the vanguard when it comes to rallying opposition to local sales tax initiatives for transportation improvements in the Tampa Bay area.

But one Tampa businessman says it will be liberal Democrats who play a leading role in killing the Go Hillsborough transportation tax at the voting booth. Bill Carlson, CEO of the public relations firm Tucker/Hall, said young Democrats especially won’t support the plan because it is short on mass transit.

“I want a robust transportation solution passed in our county,” Carlson said. “I think it would be foolhardy to push this program that we know is going to fail when we could wait a couple of years and have a comprehensive solution.”

Carlson said he is speaking as an individual, not as CEO of Tucker/Hall. He has quietly lobbied against Go Hillsborough plan for months, as have several prominent Democrats including former county Commissioner Ed Turanchik and current commission candidate Pat Kemp.

Recently, Carlson took to Facebook to urge friends to call county commissioners and ask them to kill what he called “this 30 yr road tax.” Commissioners are scheduled to vote April 27 on whether to put the proposal on the November ballot.

Carlson singled out commissioners Victor Crist and Kevin Beckner as “swing votes” who could be persuaded to vote no on the referendum. Crist has said on several occasions he is undecided about the vote; Beckner has generally been supportive.

“He asked what would it take for me to vote for it and what would it take for me to vote against it,” Crist said, describing a phone conversation with Carlson last week. “And he asked have I had more people say they are proponents or opponents. I said it’s about evenly split both ways.”

Beckner could not be reached for comment.

Asked to back up his predictions, Carlson cites conversations with many Democrats and some private polls he would not identify. He said he has commitments for between $200,000 and $400,000 in funding for Democrats to fight the tax if commissioners put it on the ballot.

He also said Hillsborough County Young Democrats passed a resolution against Go Hillsborough in January.

“This will be the first time any (transportation) campaign has had a large group of Democrats against it,” Carlson said.

The Young Democrats’ vice president, Jamie Klapholz, said the resolution did not reject the transportation plan outright.

“We wanted more emphasis on transit as opposed to roads, which were getting the majority of the funds,” Klapholz said. “We have not taken any action on Go Hillsborough.”

A recent poll of likely voters by the Mercury firm indicated a majority said they either definitely planned to vote for the tax or were leaning that way. Another recent poll conducted by the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce found 49 percent of respondents were in favor of the tax and 46 percent were against.

While Carlson, Kemp and Turanchik, all Democrats, have assailed Go Hillsborough as a “road plan,”

Republican tea party members are describing it as a “transit tax” that will include a light rail system — a tactic that helped defeat a 2010 transportation referendum in Hillsborough and a 2014 vote in Pinellas.

“Their goal is to confuse voters,” said Kevin Thurman, head of the pro-transit group Connect Tampa Bay and a Democrat. “One side of that alliance is calling that a transit tax and talking about rail and the other side is calling it a road tax.”

On Saturday, Tampa Tea Party founder Sharon Calvert sent out a “tax alert,” warning recipients that the sales tax would pay for “unnecessary rail.” Only 33 percent of the tax proceeds would go to “congestion relief” in the first 10 years, according to Calvert, and just 11 percent in the next 10 years of the 30-year tax. Yet Pat Kemp, speaking about the same tax in a Facebook post late last week, said Go Hillsborough “includes no rail.” According to Kemp, the bus system would also get shorted, with just 10 percent going to bus operations in the first 10 years. Of that, 60 percent would go to “suburban areas,” Kemp said, cheating urban dwellers.

“GH today only improves times on three major bus routes in the city and funds a circulator from Channelside to downtown,” Kemp said in the Facebook post. She could not be reached for comment.

The half-cent sales tax is projected to raise $117 million a year, $30 million of which would go to the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit authority. Of that amount, an average of 70 percent annually would go to bus operations, said Katharine Eagan, HART’s chief executive officer. The rest would go to capital, such as buses, vans and buildings to house them.

Eagan said the agency is planning on improving routes throughout the urban areas of the county, as well as adding MetroRapid that runs east and west, on Kennedy Boulevard, into downtown from Brandon and a longer-range plan for Dale Mabry.

In Tampa, seven major bus routes would see improved frequency.

As for Kemp’s claim that Go Hillsborough includes no rail, the city of Tampa disagrees. The city will use 45 percent of its share of Go Hillsborough tax proceeds in the first 10 years for mass transit, said Jean Duncan, director of transportation and stormwater services. The money will be used to modernize and extend the streetcar system and to build a commuter rail system connecting downtown with Tampa International Airport.

“They were misinformed, apparently,” Duncan said.

Thurman said recent polls are right and a majority of Democrats will support the tax. He pointed out that the two Democratic county commissioners and Mayor Bob Buckhorn support Go Hillsborough. So do Democratic candidates, he said, except for Kemp.

Brian Willis, who is running against Kemp and two other candidates in the Democratic primary for county commission District 6, disagreed with Carlson’s analysis of how his fellow party members will vote on Go Hillsborough.

Although he would like to see more money for mass transit in the plan, Willis said the majority of money is going to “alternatives to driving,” including sidewalks and other pedestrian safety infrastructure.

“What I hear when I’m campaigning around the county is that this plan meets the needs of different parts of this diverse county,” said Willis, a member of the county’s Young Democrats.

“If you’re putting in better pedestrian sidewalks and crossing paths … it’s addressing the needs that are important because we’re one of the most dangerous counties in the nation for pedestrians.”

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