TAMPA — For the past 14 months, Hillsborough County government leaders have been planning a radical transformation of the county’s transportation system to alleviate traffic jams and boost economic development.
On Tuesday, the county unveiled the first definitive list of proposed projects from that effort. Among them: dedicated street lanes for express-type buses, the beginning of a light rail system from Westshore to downtown Tampa, improved traffic management systems, and bike and walking trails.
Whether the plan comes to pass hinges on persuading county voters to pass a 1 cent sales tax, in a vote that could come as early as March 2016. It would generate a whopping $6.1 billion dollars over 30 years.
Still, the work plan is even bigger. So leaders expect to winnow it down during an extensive public outreach campaign.
Roads, bridges, trails and sidewalks — projects other than transit — would cost $4.3 billion.
Mass-transit projects could cost as much as $5.7 billion, though those costs are less definitive now.
The list also includes $745 million for repaving roads and $115 million for upgrades and replacement of bridges.
“We are at a place that, in order to pull this off, we really need an additional revenue source,” County Administrator Mike Merrill told reporters at the Tuesday press conference. “While there are a number of other revenues, they are not enough to pull off a major transit and non-transit project list.”
The sales tax would pay for the bulk of the work, but not all of it. The county is counting on state and federal grants to help with construction costs. Some operating costs would be covered by fares, and private companies may be invested in construction, operations or both, Merrill said.
Leaders of the effort have one eye over their shoulder, on the resounding defeat of a transportation sales tax referendum in 2010. They’re mounting a local government full-court press this time, addressing what are believed to be the reasons for failure by presenting a cohesive plan for how the money would be spent — and going begging for public comment.
Recent polling shows a similar initiative might pass if the public is encouraged to participate in choosing the projects.
“There was very little detail,” Merrill said, “and we were roundly criticized for it.”
Merrill said this time, the county plans public panels, designed in the “Meet the Press” format; designated contacts for the public and media, who can be reached by phone, e-mail and social media; regular briefings to social and civic clubs; and information flyers in monthly utility bills.
Detailed as they are, the projects are all in the form of proposals “because the next, very important step is to take this to voters, residents, so they can see all our suggested projects and they can challenge us,” Merrill said.
The public information campaign can begin as soon as the project list is approved by the county’s transportation policy leadership group, which meets Aug. 12. The group includes the seven county commissioners, mayors of the county’s three cities and the chairman of the board that governs the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit bus system.
The policy group and a consultant have recommended that HART be elevated into new governance agency in charge of all aspects of what the county is calling a “multi-modal, integrated mobility system.” Instead of just operating a bus system, the agency would oversee construction of transportation projects, contracting with outside parties and operations.
Merrill said the HART governing board should be reformed along with the agency so that elected local officials fill all the seats except for two reserved for gubernatorial appointees. Currently, there are 13 members on the HART board, six of whom are chosen by the county commission, three by Tampa, one by Temple Terrace and two by the governor. Five of the current members are elected officials.
“If people are going to vote for this, they have to know there are people they can hold accountable,” Merrill said.
The HART board is scheduled to vote Monday on the proposed changes. In the past, Chairman Mike Suarez, also a member of the policy leadership group, has said he opposes the proposed new mission for HART.
“I want to wait until the vote on Monday and public comment before stating my position,” Suarez said Tuesday.
HART board member Josh Burgin called the proposed transformation “an enormous power grab by the county” and a rush to build light rail.
“I am for incremental points of change, not massive, radical changes,” said Burgin, appointed to the board by Gov. Rick Scott.
The county hopes to win public support for the transportation plan by showing that a tax increase will help all areas of the county. A video produced by the county communications staff gave this breakdown on funding for road, bridge and trail projects: central and northeast parts of the county, $1.4 billion; northwestern Hillsborough, $1.2 billion; Tampa, $779 million; south county, $592 million; Plant City, $157 million; and Temple Terrace, $107 million.
Projected costs for specific mass transit corridors included these projects:
♦ A rapid transit corridor connecting Westshore to downtown Tampa via Cypress Avenue, $250 million to $800 million for construction, depending on whether bus or rail is built. Operating costs would be $5.6 million to $9.2 million annually. Some of those costs could be offset by federal funding.
♦ A transit corridor linking downtown Tampa with the University of South Florida, starting as an express-type bus service with limited stops known as bus rapid transit — with development later into a light rail line. Capital costs $515 million to $1.5 billion; operating costs between $11.8 million and $19.4 million annually. The Florida Department of Transportation also plans to improve this corridor by putting express toll lanes on Interstate 275.
♦ Bus rapid transit on an expanded U.S. Highway 60 east to Brandon. Capital costs, $835 million to $1.5 billion; annual operating costs, $19 million. The state transportation department plans to expand capacity of Interstate 4 east northeast to Thonotosassa, Seffner and Plant City with express toll lanes.
♦ Service using what are described as “premium” buses on Dale Mabry Highway connecting Raymond James Stadium, Hillsborough Community College, George M. Steinbrenner Field, Carrollwood and Lutz. Capital costs, $630 million to $1.1 billion; operating costs, $14.4 million annually.
♦ A water ferry connecting Gibsonton and MacDill Air Force Base. Capital costs $25 million. A private company would handle operating costs. Ferry service could later be expanded to link Tampa and St. Petersburg.
Meantime, HART’s own separate transit development plan envisions extended hours for bus service, additional routes, including smaller, circulator buses, and increased frequency of service if it can get the funding from an increased sales tax.
The projected cost of the expansion plan is $145 million in capital and $670 million in operating costs over 10 years.
HART also wants to create faster bus routes at a cost of $625 million for capital and $300 million in annual operating costs over 10 years.
Staff writer Yvette C. Hammett contributed to this report.