Since the end of the Great Recession, the Tampa Bay area has been among the leaders in Florida when it comes to job growth and the economy. But the region still suffers when it comes to adequately addressing its growing transportation needs.
In Hillsborough County, voters rejected a one-cent sales tax on transportation back in 2010, and it hasn’t been on the ballot again for years — until now.
“All for Transportation,” a group of citizens frustrated by the county government’s reluctance to spend more on transportation projects, generated the more than 77,000 signatures needed this summer to get a new one-cent transportation tax on the ballot in Hillsborough County on Nov. 6.
The group received generous funding from Tampa Bay Lightning owner and real-estate developer Jeff Vinik.
While much attention is garnered by statewide political races, such as who will become Florida’s next governor, regional issues are often compelling enough to grab voters’ attention.
“We have 700,000 people moving into Hillsborough County over the next 30 years,” All for Transportation member Christina Barker said on Friday while addressing a community gathering at Tampa’s Oxford Exchange.
“If we do not do something, this is the best it’s ever going to get,” she said, referring to the area’s increasing traffic congestion.
The one-cent cent tax over 30 years would raise $276 million annually, and would be used for everything from improving roads and bridges to expanding public transit options, fixing potholes, enhancing bus services, and making walking and biking safer.
Brian Willis, another member of All for Transportation, says that Hillsborough County has had plans for transportation that go back 30 years, but a lack of funding to pay for the projects.
“What we’re doing is providing a solution that funds the plans that are on the books and it fully funds them,” he said. A quarter or half-cent tax proposal would not suffice, he added.
There’s no question that the county has underfunded its transportation needs. Hillsborough County is the fourth largest state in Florida, yet ranks 62nd out of the 67 counties in terms of transportation funding, according to FloridaTaxWatch.
The measure, if approved Nov. 6, would distribute 55 percent of the funds to Hillsborough County and its three cities (including Tampa); another 44 percent to HART, the region’s transit agency, and other mass transit projects, and 1 percent for planning and development.
The measure also calls for a citizen-led independent oversight committee that would produce annual audits to make sure that the money is spent as advertised.
The big question politically is whether residents outside of Tampa will back the measure – or at least not strongly oppose it.
Though the 2010 Hillsborough sales tax measure lost by a wide margin (58%-42%) it was actually successful in Tampa, the most urban part of the vast county.
But there are critics.
Sharon Calvert is with No Tax for Tracks, a political action committee created to oppose the measure. She says one of the problems with the measure is that too much of the funding would go directly to the city of Tampa “but it will be the unincorporated (part of Hillsborough County) that will be paying for it.”
Americans for Prosperity Florida, the Koch Brothers-funded group, is also actively campaigning against the measure. The group has run radio and television ads touting their opposition.
Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn is a strong supporter of the plan, as are several other elected Democrats in the county.
All for Transportation officials say that while they have heard plenty of registered Republicans express their support, no elected Republicans in the county have come forward with an endorsement of the plan.