Hillsborough Commission rekindles transit talks, sans penny tax

12/15/10 Kate Bradshaw
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It’s no secret that some Hillsborough County officials want to forge ahead on overhauling the area’s transit system despite voters’ rejection of a proposal to raise the sales tax to fund the project. Today the Board of County Commissioners mulled over potential ways to tackle the area’s congested roads without holding out the coffers to taxpayers.

Make no mistake about it, the board members said at their regular meeting today – another transit referendum is out of the question, at least for now.

"This is not a request to bring back a penny sales tax debate."

Commissioner Al Higginbotham brought the transit discussion to today’s agenda, But a month and a half after nearly sixty percent of Hillsborough voters turned down the tax, the discussion looks a little different than it did six months ago.

"All we want is to be able to have our county professionals look at these numbers and then simply see if there was a stone or stones unturned."

Higginbotham said it’s clear most Hillsborough County residents want some kind of transit overhaul, but they also want it funded from a source other than their own pockets.

"In listening to the public, in responding to the comments from the public, they overwhelmingly said, 'see if there's other mechanisms, something that's already on our books that would not increase our expenses, that would not create a new tax.'"

Higginbotham had been a key opponent of the transit tax referendum leading up to the November election. Several times he debated fellow Republican commissioner Mark Sharpe on the topic. Today Sharpe called Higginbotham’s new approach sound, and said there may be some solutions closer at hand than a sweeping countywide project.

"There may well be viable alternatives for, if nothing else, a demonstration line that can be established east-west that would connect the airport to where the high-speed rail line exists that would not require a tax increase."

Commissioner Higginbotham said he wanted to make it clear that he’s not trying to pursue rail.

"I'm not in quest of a rail or a specific line, I'm in quest of sources of funding, and those only. It could be that there's a special, I don't want to say the word, tax district, along a corridor that would not involve people that are not on that corridor. that are not benefiting from that."

Commissioner Kevin Beckner said it’s good to examine the possibilities when it comes to funding and planning transit projects, but the commissioners shouldn’t neglect the work the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority has already done.

"HART has done and extraordinary, extensive amount of work, and a lot of money has been spent in analysis and alternative analysis. I think that those analysis need to be complete. I think we need to work with HART and the NPO and our other partners to take a look at what would be the viable alternatives."

Commissioner Sharpe said he’s concerned that the public might misconstrue today’s agenda item as an attempt to resuscitate the dead transit referendum.

"I know that you're not trying to again, reintroduce a referendum, that's not your intent. I hope that's not what comes out of this or what appears to come out of this. It simply to look at how we might do this without having to go to the taxpayers."

There is already a sizable transit project underway, and it already has funding. In 2008, the county gave HART nearly $40 million in bond proceeds to develop a bus rapid transit system. The things, County Administrator Mike Merrill said, tax code requires that money gets used within three years, or else the county will have to spend it on something else.

"So now three years has elapsed, virtually all of those bond proceeds are still remaining unspent, $39 million. What we have to do to be in compliance with federal tax law is bring that money back in house, spend it, and then amend the agreements so that HART can move forward with the projects on a reimbursement basis. We're not going to be placing money again in trust."

There might not be a bus rapid transit system running along any major thoroughfares now, but HART CEO David Armijo said significant work has already been done on the project.

"The work that's been done so far was a plan development and engineering design work that was done last year. We just completed a few months ago the traffic signal analysis was completed as to what signals will be involved and what would be affected by that. We've been working with our other elements, or our partners which include FDOT, the city and the county and so on. The final design was awarded on the project in 2010, last October, and now we're working on some real estate acquisition and parking rights at the beginning of next month."

Armijo said the bus rapid transit system would run along a seventeen and a half mile long corridor from Temple Terrace to Downtown Tampa along Nebraska Avenue.

"There's a total of 26 stops, the buses will operate with higher frequency, we're talking about a ten minute frequency. Today HART has 46 operating routes, only 6 of those routes operate with a fifteen minute frequency. So this is a very much enhanced. Special amenities will be included including enhanced shelters, ticket vending machines, and so on."

Merrill said the county would do some shuffling in its books to vouchsafe that HART can carry out the bus rapid transit project, and the county would reimburse HART for the project cost.

"What we will do is make an accounting adjustment to reflect that those proceeds are spent to replace cash that was spent in the past. So essentially just projects that we built in the past with cash, we're just going to reverse that entry to reflect bond proceeds as having paid for those projects."

According to HART’s bus rapid transit Web page, the north-south line is expected to be operational by 2013. Meanwhile, HART will open an extension of its streetcar line December 19. The line will now go from Ybor City to Downtown; it currently runs from Ybor to Channelside.

Previous WMNF coverage of HART

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