County Commission moves forward on transit

12/02/09 Kate Bradshaw
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Today the Hillsborough Board of County Commissioners moved a step closer to letting the public decide if it will fund transportation. If adopted, the referendum would add a one cent sales tax to fund the multi-billion dollar transit overhaul, which would include light rail. The board passed the resolution 5 to 2. Commissioners Jim Norman and Al Higginbotham staunchly opposed the move.

Norman, challenging county staff on the feasibility of the project, reiterated his stance that this is another case of government asking the public for trust it doesn’t deserve.

County Utilities and Commerce Administrator Mike Merrill said that, while there is no way to guarantee that the overhaul would go perfectly as planned, it is in and of itself sound.

Higginbotham said he feared the economic impact the tax might have.

Commissioner Mark Sharpe, a strong advocate of the penny transit tax referendum, said that taxes in Hillsborough County would still be relatively low.

Commissioner Kevin White said that the transit tax, which would fund a bus line expansion, road projects, pedestrian trails and a light rail system, would allow Tampa Bay area to better compete with other metropolitan areas.

During the public comment session, residents expressed mixed feelings on the issue. Local activist Gerald White said that beefing up mass transit was essential for the working poor.

For most of the speakers who delivered public testimony, economics was at the heart of the issue. Speaking on behalf of tourism and economic development corporation Tampa Bay and Company, Mise en Place co-proprietor Maryann Ferenc told the board that better transportation was essential in attracting special events to the area.

Used car dealer Marc DeNicolo expressed concern over the impact a sales tax increase might have on his industry, though the county does have a sales tax cap for big ticket items like cars.

David Caton illustrated his opposition with a Ferrari, saying that the tax would amount to the cost of 31,500 of them. He said the transit tax would be just as frivolous and that it essentially forces taxpayers to fund future developments.

Commissioner Rose Ferlita stressed that the issue should not be partisan and that the vote would at the very least put the decision to update the way Hillsborough residents travel into the hands of voters.

Today’s approval lights the way for workshops and public meetings at which the details of the referendum will be discussed. Ballot language for the penny transit tax referendum is not expected to come about until at least February of 2010.

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