Most Hillsborough County residents know the county suffers from a poor transportation system and a lagging economy.
What if the solution to both problems was intertwined?
County commissioners decided Tuesday the answer to that question is yes, agreeing to link transportation planning to economic development efforts. Under the county’s new strategic plan, road improvements, new bus routes or light-rail lines will be directed toward economic development areas that commissioners hope will spawn high-tech, high-wage jobs.
But commissioners also decided they don’t want to revamp their transportation strategy in a vacuum.
So they dispatched County Administrator Mike Merrill to invite participation from the mayors of Tampa, Plant City and Temple Terrace, as well as the leaders of the county’s bus system and the Metropolitan Planning Organization, which handles transportation planning for the county and its three cities.
“We’re not talking about taking over anybody. We’re creating a backbone,” Merrill said.
Merrill’s discussion with the other leaders will take place in the next two weeks in preparation for the March 20 commission meeting. Mark Sharpe plans to ask the other commissioners at that meeting to support a wide-ranging “conversation” on transportation that will include the public, business leaders, transportation agencies and the county’s three cities.
Sharpe said it’s urgent that the conversation start soon. The longer it takes to modernize Hillsborough’s rickety transportation system, the further behind the county gets in its efforts to compete with other regions for high-wage jobs and a more-skilled workforce.
“If you snooze you’re going to lose in transportation,” Sharpe said before Tuesday’s meeting.
Also, other regional agencies and jurisdictions are moving on their own with plans to raise revenue for transportation projects. Sharpe said HART is contemplating exchanging the property tax that supports the bus system with a half-cent-per-dollar sales tax.
“If you shift from property taxes to sales taxes, you give people some property tax relief,” Sharpe said, “and you have a number of people come to our community and spend money that would contribute to our transportation system.”
In Pinellas County, commissioners last week voted to hold a referendum in November 2014 on a one-cent sales tax for transportation projects.
And the nonprofit Connect Tampa Bay is considering circulating petitions to put a transit tax on the 2014 ballot in Hillsborough County, Sharpe said.
Sharpe was the leading voice on the commission in 2010 supporting a 1-cent-per-dollar sales tax for road improvements, bus service expansion and a light rail system. Voters rejected the tax by a wide margin.
Chastened by that defeat, Sharpe said he’s not coming into this year’s transportation debate with any preconceived notions, such as the need to put a tax on the 2014 ballot. And he thinks the county should concentrate on what it can afford in transportation, such as road and intersection improvements and more buses.
“We shouldn’t be trying to build this grandiose transportation system that’s going to break us,” he said.
Commission Chairman Ken Hagan said he agreed with Sharpe’s points about the urgency of moving forward with transportation planning that would include some form of mass transit. Hagan said the public needs to realize that the county doesn’t have the revenue to meet its infrastructure needs.
But rather than a tax referendum in 2014, Hagan suggested the county start looking at other financing methods such as toll roads and public-private partnerships.
“Certainly a discussion needs to occur,” Hagan said after the meeting. “I’m please to see we’re going to align our infrastructure improvements with our economic development objectives. I think that’s the first time we’ve ever done that and it’s a major step in the right direction.”