TAMPA — One year ago, a group of young professionals formed Connect Tampa Bay to foster discussions about transportation.
“There was a general frustration that no one was talking about the issues we were concerned about,” said Brian Seel, a Connect Tampa Bay board member.
Now, Seel says, the situation has “completely flipped.” Hillsborough County's top political leaders say building a modern, efficient transportation system is a priority, not only to relieve the county's congested roadways, but to grow the economy.
On Thursday night, Connect Tampa Bay rolled out its vision of what a new transportation system should look like and how to pay for it, details that county commissioners and the county's three mayors are still discussing.
The group's plan, called “Go Hillsborough,” advocates a 1 cent sales tax increase that would raise $204 million annually in today's dollars.
Connect Tampa Bay advocates putting one third of the money for road maintenance and improvements and another third to finance construction of a light rail system connecting the Westshore business district and downtown with the University of South Florida. Part of the road money would be spent on dedicated lanes for bus rapid transit.
About a quarter of the funds would be used to expand the county's bus system, increasing frequency of stops as well as expanding and adding routes. Eight percent - about $25 million a year - would finance what Thurman called “walk-bike” projects, such as bike paths and sidewalks.
“We have hundreds of people in this area that die and get injured (by cars) walking and riding,” Thurman said.
The group also advocates putting 2 percent of the tax money toward a ferry connecting south Hillsborough County with downtown Tampa, MacDill Air Force Base and St. Petersburg.
The plan was based in part on a survey of the group's 3,500 members and hundreds of meetings that Thurman said he and other Connect Tampa Bay board members attended. As the title, “Go Hillsborough” suggests, the group wants county leaders to act sooner rather than later.
Thurman said millions of dollars' worth of transportation studies have already been done and are still valid.
“Let's not spend millions of dollars to do that work again,” Thurman said.
Thurman noted that Pinellas County has scheduled a referendum for November on a 1 cent sales tax increase for increased bus service and light rail. Polk County also has scheduled a November referendum on a sales tax that would be split between bus transit and roads.
The Go Hillsborough plan envisions a referendum on a transportation tax in either 2015 or 2016, but no later. Some local political leaders, including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn and county Commissioner Mark Sharpe, want the vote in March of 2015, in conjunction with the Tampa mayoral election.
Thurman argued that the stars are aligned for a successful referendum, much more so than in 2010 when county residents soundly rejected a transportation tax. Now, he said, there is near universal consensus among Hillsborough County residents of all political persuasions that the current transportation situation is not acceptable.
Many business leaders also have voiced concern that doing nothing to fix the county's clogged transportation network will hurt the local economy. The Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce has created a transportation caucus that is doing its own research and will later make a recommendation on policies the chamber's board can endorse.
Though the group is urging action, Thurman emphasized that the county must engage in an intense public outreach effort to see what transportation improvements residents want in their areas of the county. He said a minimum goal is to contact 24,000 residents in all areas of the county.
“The only way to build support is to give people what they want,” he said.