After years of unsuccessful efforts, advocates for expanded transportation options in Hillsborough County were thrilled when a one-percent sales tax referendum designed to go towards transportation improvements was supported by 57% of the voters in 2018.
But the Florida Supreme Court voided the referendum last year, supporting the claim made by Commissioner Stacy White that the measure violated the state constitution. In response, the County Commission voted earlier this year to place another one-cent sales tax for transportation on this November’s ballot.
Now with inflation at its highest level in 40 years, the question is: will Hillsborough voters come out in as strong of support for the measure as they did in 2018?
The campaign for the referendum begins later this week, when All for Transportation, the same campaign organization that successfully advocated for the measure in 2018, will hold a “community kick off” event at their new headquarters in Ybor City. Unlike their effort in 2018 when they collected nearly 59,000 signatures to qualify to get the measure on the November ballot, they were spared that extra work this year when the county commission voted 5-2 in April to place the transportation referendum on the Nov. 8 ballot.
If approved by the voters, the tax is projected to raise $342 million in its first year. Nearly half of those funds (45%) would go directly to HART. The county and its three cities (Tampa, Temple Terrace and Plant City) would divide 54.5% based on their populations, and one-half percent would go to the Hillsborough Transportation Planning Organization.
Formal opposition comes from the same coalition who opposed the measure in 2018, NoTaxForTracks. One talking point they espouse is that the majority of people who live outside of Tampa will be paying a disproportionate share for projects that will mostly benefit those inside the city.
“Unless you’re telling me it’s fair to have your neighbor fix your roof, then it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense,” says Jim Davison, a New Tampa-based physician who’s been involved in transportation issues in Hillsborough County going back to the previous century, when he served on the “Committee of 99,” a group of prominent Hillsborough residents, activists and business leaders who convened to discuss the county’s transportation issues in 1999.
Another critic, Karen Jaroch, has already filed a lawsuit against the measure. She’s alleging that the ballot language is unlawful and should be removed from the Nov. 8 ballot.
“The ballot language misleads the people into thinking their vote will build and widen roads in Brandon or expand public transit options in Town ‘n’ Country for thirty years. That is not true,” Jaroch told Spectrum Bay News 9. “The board knows it’s not true because the Florida Supreme Court told it so when it invalidated this same tax just last year after the County illegally took hundreds of millions of dollars from the people. The only thing a vote for this referendum does it saddle people with a new thirty-year tax.”
Hillsborough County Attorney Christine Beck told the Tampa Bay Times that the county “will vigorously defend this important initiative to allow the citizens of Hillsborough County to have a voice in the transportation needs of our county.”
Janet Scherberger with Bike/Walk Tampa strongly supports the referendum, and pushes back on the idea that projects in Tampa will get stronger consideration for funding than those in other areas of the county.
“There’s huge needs for road improvements in all parts of the unincorporated parts of the county, far outside the city,” she says. “Those roads need improvement. And they need other kinds of infrastructure, too. Sidewalks and biking infrastructure.”
Advocates are also touting how transportation improvements can increase safety in what has historically been one of the most dangerous areas in the country for pedestrians (a recent report said that Tampa Bay was the fourth-deadliest metro area for pedestrians in the U.S.) Scherberger cited how neighborhood groups have been unable to get the county to add a streetlight at the corner of Bay to Bay and Lois, where two teenagers were killed in an accident last December.
As to concerns that voters may not be as supportive this year as they were in 2018 because of inflation, Scherberger notes that because this is a sales tax, the burden won’t simply be on local residents but visitors and tourists as well.
“The people who come here to go to work or go to a Bucs game or a Lightning game. They’re also using our infrastructure, and they should also pay,” she says.
Davison contends that the end goal of county and city officials is to build a transit system of some sort.
“The city of Tampa has already stated that,” he says. “They’re going to build a train with the sales tax if it’s passed. HART says that they’re going to build a train if it’s passed. That’s subterfuge that they’re using.”
“Not true,” says Adam Smith, communications director with the city of Tampa. “Top priorities include repaving and fixing streets throughout the city, improving sidewalks and making them both safe for everyone who uses them.”
And Smith adds that in terms of transit, the top priority for the city is to expand and modernize the streetcar.
There is also nothing about a potential train system listed in HART’s updated 10-year transit development plan that included projects that could be implemented with additional funding that was released last year. Rail was part of the 2010 “Go Hillsborough” transportation referendum that went down to defeat, but the idea has not been part of public conversation in years, specifically after the “Greenlight Pinellas” measure that included a passenger rail component was soundly rejected by Pinellas County voters.
When asked later by Spectrum Bay News 9 about what type of train he was referring to, Davison texted back that he is referring to an alternate format for trains called Diesel Multiple Unit (DMU), which has been described as something that “looks like commuter rail, but at almost light rail frequency.”
Hillsborough Transportation Planning Organization Executive Director Beth Alden says that while rail technologies like DMU would be eligible for funding (as could bus rapid transit in dedicated lanes and water transit), “there has been no determination of how the portion of the sales tax proceeds set aside for Expanding Public Transit Options will be used.”
Davison contends that members of All for Transportation are reluctant to engage in a formal debate with him.
“If what I was saying was so untrue, and so egregious, on the facts that they’re using, you would think that they would be delighted by debating us. And just exposing us. They will not,” he says.
“There’s nothing to debate,” a spokesperson for All for Transportation told Spectrum Bay News 9. “That $13 billion backlog of road, safety and transportation projects speaks for itself.”
The county had collected more than $500 million in revenue from the transportation sales tax before it was ultimately ruled invalid by the Florida Supreme Court. Hillsborough County Judge Rex Barbas has ruled that those funds will go to road projects in the county, but the specific projects will be determined by members of the state Legislature.