Tuesday, December 4, 2012

A majority of Hillsborough voters support a half-cent sales tax for transit

Posted By on Tue, Dec 4, 2012 at 11:15 AM

Last week, the Tampa Tribune reported that the Hillsborough County Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) will ask its board to consider a mass transit plan that has similarities to the failed 2010 referendum.

But during a discussion on Tuesday morning, Beth Alden from the MPO said there was "some confusion" about the report, and she was simply bringing to the board a research study about the county's long range transportation plan, which is due for an update in two years.

The study includes everything detailed in the original Tribune story.

That update presented to the MPO board on Tuesday also included voluminous data culled by a series of focus groups and a survey, which indicated that Hillsborough County voters would support a half-cent sales tax for transit. The measure defeated by 16 percentage points was for a full cent.

Alden revealed what the MPO calls a "hybrid rail" plan, which would combine elements of both light and commuter rails. The plan would be to negotiate with CSX for its train tracks, reducing the total costs of the project. She said the costs could be a third or half of what the 2010 failed Hillsborough light rail project was expected to cost, which was between $800-900 million.

There is precedent, as CSX sold 61 miles of track to Florida for a commuter service being built in the Orlando area.

In between Alden's presentation came a breakdown of extensive polling by Kenney Group consultant Ben Kelly. The polling targeted Tampa and Hillsborough County residents, and included questions about transportation and how much residents would pay to improve it.

One aspect from 2010 that remains the case when it comes to the resistance of passing a tax measure in Hillsborough are the key words of "transparency" and "accountability." In other words, the public doesn't put a whole lot of faith in their local politicians to do the right thing with the new revenues to improve transportation.

"That roadblock is something that needs to be overcome," Kelly said in an understatement.

Polling indicates that the only tax people think is fair to tap into is either through sales or ad valorem revenues. The 2010 Hillsborough vote would have increased the sales tax in Hillsborough County from an extra penny to 8 cents (making it the highest in Florida). Beth Alden showed a graphic indicating that full cent tax measures fail more often than they're successful, and that smaller increases have a better chance of success.

Perhaps that's why the most interesting poll offered revealed more than 57 percent of Hillsborough County residents would support a tax of a half-cent. That of course includes Tampa residents, who in 2010 voted to support the full penny measure (as did voters in Temple Terrace).

By a 58-36 margin, residents voted for cities in Florida to have the power to put a tax referendum on the ballot. Currently only Florida counties are allowed to put a tax referendum on the ballot, which frustrates Mayor Bob Buckhorn and members of the City Council, as they are aware that there is support right now to pay for transit. To change that, legislation would need to be passed in the Republican-led Legislature and signed by Gov. Rick Scott.

Two different series of focus groups in 2011 and a new survey of residents this past summer made up the data that Kelly presented. The most popular comments revolved around a lack of county planning, as well as frustrations with traffic intersections.

"But clearly a common theme was the lack of safe biking and walking infrastructure," he said.

The Board voted unanimously in favor of accepting the report and allowing the MPO staff to further study the issue. No board members commented on the presentation.

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