TAMPA — Do Hillsborough County residents prefer their taxes be spent on better roads or do they want a more diverse array of transportation options, including rapid bus routes, light rail and a high-speed ferry?
It turns out they want all of the above, according to a recent poll conducted for the county government by Florida Opinion Research. About 1,100 county residents responded to the poll, which has a 3 percent margin of error.
Slightly more than 73 percent of the respondents said they would favor widening roads in areas where there are strong concentrations of employers, even though the survey question included the proviso that such an approach is costly and takes a long time. And 81 percent favored enlarging intersections and improving traffic flow technology in order to reduce congestion.
But the poll showed an even more positive response — 82 percent — in favor of expanding bus routes and more frequent bus pickups. Also strongly favored at 73 percent was increasing transit options to include toll lanes on interstates, a high-speed ferry from southern Hillsborough to MacDill Air Force Base, and a light rail system.
Kevin Thurman, director of the pro-transit group, Connect Tampa Bay, used the poll results to question what he called a “heavily road-focused” report County Administrator Mike Merrill presented to the county’s transportation policy group in March. The group, which includes county commissioners and the mayors of Hillsborough’s three cities, is supposed to come up with a transportation improvement plan by November along with ways to fund projects.
“All of this points to the fact that people want options and they want transit,” Thurman said Monday. “But when (the county) presents a plan, it looks nothing like what people are asking for.”
Thurman was referring to a page in Merrill’s report labeled: “Mobility Solutions Proposed to Date.” Under the heading “short term wins,” Merrill listed 55 intersection improvements, but just one bus rapid transit demonstration project.
The pro-transit forces favor adoption of multiple routes across the county for bus rapid transit, which uses dedicated lanes and other features to cut travel times.
Under “long-term wins,” Merrill did add 17 new bus rapid transit routes, plus light rail, the high-speed ferry and a multi-modal transit center in the West Shore area where commuters could switch from one transit mode to another.
Thurman interpreted Merrill’s short-term list as a plan to put any new transportation revenue the county collects toward road projects first, postponing meaningful mass transit improvements for a decade or more.
“If we’re talking about one BRT line for the next 10 years in Hillsborough County, we have a serious issue,” Thurman said.
Merrill dismissed Thurman’s interpretation, saying the two lists were not indicators of a preference for roads and intersections over fast buses and rail lines. The short-term list, Merrill said, is projects that can be done fairly quickly — two to three years — and relatively cheaply.
Plus, the policy group has yet to come up with new funding to support the countywide projects. Several members of the group said they favor a referendum in November 2016 to raise the county sales tax by a penny and dedicate the money to transportation.
“It’s a recognition that some projects can be done sooner that will have a material effect on congestion,” Merrill said. “Just taking care of those 55 intersections, you get a pretty quick and positive impact on congestion, as well as with intelligent traffic solutions.”
Transit projects, on the other hand, take much longer. The main delay in starting new bus rapid transit routes, Merrill said, is the 18 months it takes between ordering and receiving a new bus. The 17 additional BRT routes could be done in four to five years, Merrill said.
Light rail lines that have been built in other parts of the country have taken 10 years or more, Merrill said. And the high-speed ferry between Apollo Beach and MacDill Air Force Base will probably take two to three years because the ferry company must buy land for a port and get government permits.
The poll, conducted May 4-8, was light on specifics, and that was by design, said Eric Johnson, the county’s director of strategic planning and grant management. Johnson said the transportation policy group wanted an early indication of whether the public supports the county’s quest to improve transportation on a broad scale. Later polls will get more specific on projects and funding.
“Basically what I think comes out of this is we really validated the people agree with our approach,” Johnson said. “We’re not at the point of describing specific projects; we’re not at the point of asking, ‘If you like these projects are you willing to pull out your wallets and pay for them?’”
That point will come in June and July, when the policy group is supposed to adopt funding proposals and approve a governing group to oversee the construction of the actual projects. The governance group is likely to be a revamped and enlarged HART board, the county agency that now runs public buses.
The proposals adopted during the June-July period will be vetted in public focus groups and polls during August and September. A final adoption of funding should come in October and the group will finish its work in November.
Merrill insisted the policy group will meet its deadlines.
“We’ve been up front and we’ve been trying to do this right, and as of today we’re still on the trajectory,” Merrill said. “I feel like they will make funding solutions decisions in October or November.”