BRADENTON, Fla. — After years of study and indecision, Hillsborough County, Fla., officials have agreed to place on November’s ballot a proposal to increase the sales tax by 1% to fund long-term mass transit projects, including light rail.
Hillsborough, home to Tampa along the mid-western coast, is one of Florida’s largest metropolitan areas without a mass transit program that includes a commuter-rail system.
County commissioners, who approved placing the referendum on the ballot following an hours-long public hearing Thursday night, also approved a 30-year mass transit plan to be partly financed with bonds to implement light rail and upgrade bus systems.
The plan also is designed to create an intermodal transportation network for connecting to the state’s high speed rail system that plans envision will be built first from Tampa to Orlando, and eventually from Orlando to Miami.
Several speakers Thursday’s pointed out that the Tampa area was ranked by Forbes this year as the No. 1 worst city in the country for commutes. Forbes said Tampa residents “endure the most grueling slog to work.”
“I appreciate the fact that the voters will have the opportunity to vote on what I consider the most significant public policy issue of this century,” said Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio.
The county has a population of 1.2 million suffering from a constrained road network with little or no room to add travel lanes. The Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority offers local bus and trolley service and also will operate the local rail system.
If voters approve the tax increase Nov. 2, some 75% of the revenues would be spent on transit, including local rail and an expanded bus system, and 25% would be spent for other transportation improvements.
In a related matter last Thursday, state transportation officials announced that the Federal Railroad Administration had issued a record of decision essentially clearing the way for design of the Tampa-to-Orlando high speed rail segment.
In January, the project received $1.25 billion of federal stimulus funding toward the estimated $2.6 billion cost. Florida expects to use a public private partnership to build the high speed rail system.
Earlier this month, Polk County Commissioners voted to put a half-cent mass transit sales tax referendum on the November ballot. The revenues would be used to combine several existing bus systems into an expanded countywide operation. Polk, home to Lakeland, is 25 miles east of Tampa and has a population of nearly 600,000.