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Foes, supporters of sales tax see new path for transportation fixes

TAMPA — A day after county commissioners voted 4-3 against putting the Go Hillsborough tax on the November ballot, both supporters and opponents vowed to continue fighting for safer, less-congested roads.

But there are stark differences of opinion on how Hillsborough should pursue transportation nirvana.

Commissioner Victor Crist, who was the swing vote in killing the half-cent-per-dollar sales tax, said he thinks commissioners will find a way to fund the $905 million in road and transit projects that the tax would have financed in the first 10 years.

“As we move forward with the budget, we’ll find money for a 10-year plan,” Crist said Thursday. “I think the desire is there on the board to find a way to fund our 10-year plan and get it done. It will mean tightening our belts and making some sacrifices.”

County Administrator Mike Merrill has told commissioners that level of funding for transportation is impossible with current revenues unless they cut popular programs such as parks, law enforcement and services for children and the elderly.

But Crist suggested the answer is a simple across-the-board cut of 2 ½ percent out of general revenues. The cuts would include budgets for constitutional officers such as the sheriff, property appraiser and clerk of court. Past commissions have usually approved constitutional officers’ budget with little or no debate.

Supporters of the tax, however, say they’re through counting on county commissioners to solve transportation problems. As soon as the vote was recorded Wednesday night, mass transit advocates were calling for a grass-roots petition drive to put a transportation referendum directly on the ballot. It’s not clear whether they would be shooting for the Nov. 8 election or waiting until 2018.

It would take 43,611 signed and verified petitions to put a measure on the ballot this year.

“I think you will see people take matters into their own hands and bypass the county commission,” said Kevin Thurman, an advocate for mass transit. “The best plans come from the people. If thousands of people want to give their fellow citizens the ability to vote on their future, that’s the clearest voice of the people.”

Thurman pinned the blame for the tax’s defeat on Crist and commissioners Sandy Murman and Al Higginbotham. The three Republicans voted against the tax even though they took part in more than two years of discussions and public outreach as members of the county’s transportation Policy Leadership Group.

Thurman pointed out that Higginbotham, during his 2014 campaign, promised to support whatever final recommendation came out the policy group — even a tax.

“These three commissioners said transportation was a priority and then they turned their backs on it,” Thurman said. “People die on our streets every day, they can’t get to work, and these commissioners twiddled their thumbs for three years. So they can’t be trusted.”

The other commissioner voting no Wednesday night, Republican Stacy White, vowed not to raise taxes for transportation during his campaign in 2014. The process that was later named Go Hillsborough was already underway then, so Thurman gave White a pass.

Brian Willis, a pro-transit advocate and Democrat who is running for county commission this year, said he’s been advocating a citizen initiative for transportation during his campaign. Willis is trying to qualify as a candidate for countywide District 6 by collecting 7,660 signed petitions, an alternative to paying a qualifying fee.

“It’s been something I’ve been speaking to people about for some time,” Willis said. “I think it’s the way we should proceed — with a people-driven process. We could get a better plan that has more transit and get it on the ballot by petition.”

If he is elected to the commission, Willis said, he would work with community groups to develop a transportation initiative that could be put on the ballot by petition. Like Thurman, Willis said he doesn’t think a majority of the current commission will fund transportation improvements, especially mass transit.

“I don’t see a coalition of county commissioners that will put a plan that’s acceptable to me on the ballot,” he said. “The only way we’re going to get a real plan with the transit we need is to go to the people.”

Go Hillsborough opponents were united in their opposition to a 30-year tax, a duration recommended by the county administration and the Policy Leadership Group. Tampa Tea Party founder Sharon Calvert said a shorter-term plan would give the county flexibility to take advantage of emerging technology, such as driverless cars.

“We want to be able to take advantage of those opportunities and not get into something 20 years or more that you can’t get out of,” Calvert, a Republican, said.

Like other opponents, Calvert complained the Go Hillsborough process was flawed, with county leaders pushing the half-cent sales tax without regard for other measures. Commissioners instead should look at the county budget and prioritize transportation spending, Calvert said — a policy Murman and Crist have supported.

Public relations Bill Carlson, a Democrat who lobbied against Go Hillsborough, echoed Calvert in faulting the county administration for pushing a sales tax as the only solution to the transportation backlog.

“The feeling from many of the people who attended the meetings was the process was more about selling than listening,” Carlson said. “It can’t be a sales job; it’s got to be based on a consensus and community input.”

County leaders should go back to the drawing board, Carlson said, and develop a plan that creates more excitement among the voting public. Such a plan would contain a larger mass transit element, Carlson said. The Go Hillsborough project plan put a majority of funding toward roads, bridges and intersections.

But for Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, Wednesday night’s vote was the death knell for mass transit. Buckhorn planned to use Tampa’s share of the $117 million a year the tax increase would generate for a commuter rail line and enhancements to the city’s street car.

Though an exact route has not been planned, city officials want a commuter rail to link downtown with Tampa International Airport.

Tampa’s streetcar, which now connects Ybor City with the south end of downtown on Whiting Street, would have been modernized and extended north to the Marion Transit Center, Hillsborough’s main commuter bus station, or even farther north to Tampa Heights.

Before Wednesday night’s meeting Buckhorn implored commissioners to place the 30-year tax referendum on the ballot in order to fund the city’s mass transit plans. Some commissioners had flirted with a 10- or 20-year tax but neither option won support Wednesday night.

Buckhorn said the city would not be able to finance the transit projects with a tax less than 30 years because the debt service would be too high for the city to pay. Also, Tampa could not compete for federal grants with a 10- or 20-year tax, he said.

“The federal government will not partner with you on these long-term infrastructure issues unless they know you have the ability to cover the debt and you have enough left over for operations and maintenance,” Buckhorn said.

The city was depending on federal grants to cover one-half to one-third the costs of the transit projects.

Crist said Buckhorn’s insistence that only a 30-year tax would suffice helped kill support on the commission for a 10- or 20-year tax. The Republican commissioner said the Democratic mayor did not supply enough details about where the rail line would go, how it would be operated, and what the ridership would be.

“I’m not saying I don’t like his ideas; I share his vision,” Crist said. “I’m just saying I want more comfort and more security that you would find in a well-thought-out master plan that we haven’t seen provided yet.”

Planning for mass transit as Tampa leaders envision it takes six to eight years, Buckhorn said, and couldn’t be completed in time for a November referendum. In any case, Buckhorn said, the absence of a master plan should not have been grounds for denying voters the chance to vote on the Go Hillsborough tax.

“To know now that the county commission is unwilling to even let the citizens have a say is discouraging at best,” he said. “We didn’t ask them to raise taxes; we asked them to let the voters choose for themselves. For those who choose not to give voters the ability to choose their own future, the burden is on them to come up with a solution.”

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