Transportation planners in Hillsborough County laid out how they would spend money from a proposed one cent sales tax increase on Thursday, with little mention of rail or other mass transit options besides busses.
Officials told Tampa City Council members that the $280 million the initiative would bring in would mostly go to re-paving roads, creating new sidewalks and funding desperately needed maintenance projects.
The focus on bread-and-butter issues rather than big projects is actually by design. Beth Alden, head of the Hillsborough Metropolitan Planning Organization, said the language of the referendum requires local governments to spend the new money on basic services
"This means we would be adequately meeting the needs for our transportation programs," Alden said. "We are fixing our bridges on time, we are going out and addressing the high crash areas on our major roadway network, so that over time we don't have these 50 percent higher crash rates then other major cities."
Around half of the money generated from the increased sales tax would go to the county bus system. That could lead to a more functional bus service with more routes, Alden said. The remaining money would be divvied up between Hillsborough County and its major cities, including Tampa, Temple Terrace and Plant city.
Jean Duncan, director of Tampa’s Transportation and Storm Water Services department, said the city’s funding priorities would remain the same: roadway maintenance, expanded bike lanes and sidewalks, and easing congestion.
After years of reductions in Tampa’s transportation budget, Duncan said not approving the sales tax increase could be disastrous.
"We continue to fall further behind and get to a real failure situation if we just keep trekking along," she said.
Duncan assured the Tampa City Council that the extra money coming from the referendum would not lead to a "bait and switch" in the budget. Most of the city's transportation funding comes from gas tax and impact fees, which can't be diverted to other parts of the budget just because there is a new revenue source.
The city would get an estimated $33.7 million from the increased sales tax, but Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn has already asked for $4 million in cuts for transportation programs in his 2019 budget proposal.
Council members had only positive things to say about the referendum being pushed by the Transportation For All group. After hearing the presentations from transit officials on Thursday, Councilman Guido Maniscalco gave the proposal a full-throated endorsement.
"People can't just look at this as a tax increase, this is an investment in our future and our quality of life," he said.