County roads to get $500M

Future sales tax funds will pay for the mostly road widening and extension projects.

By BILL VARIAN, Times Staff Writer
Published October 18, 2007

TAMPA - Hillsborough County commissioners gave final approval Wednesday to a $500-million plan aimed at taking some of the squeeze out of the rush-hour commute.

Commissioners voted 5-2 to earmark future sales tax collections after no one showed up for a public hearing on the transportation proposal. The money will go primarily toward road widening and extension projects around the county and the unclogging of key intersections.

The approval came over the objection of commission Chairman Jim Norman, who along with Brian Blair voted against it. Norman argued that the project eats up almost all of the remaining money the community investment tax is expected to raise before it sunsets in 2026.

He suggested that Commissioner Ken Hagan, who championed the proposal, downsize the expenditure to $250-million.

"That's 19 years of future commissions that won't have any ability to designate projects," Norman said. "You'll lose a lot of opportunity."

In recent months, commissioners have been asked by representatives of the court system and Sheriff's Office to keep money available for a new criminal courthouse and jail space. Combined, those projects could cost as much as $350-million.

But county budget officials said future revenue should be available to help cover those costs.

Hagan, who headed the task force that made the recommendation, said future sales tax revenue projects and construction costs are based on "the most conservative assumptions." He thinks money will be available for those projects and then some.

Mark Sharpe, who also sat on the task force, said Norman's point was well taken. But he argued that commissioners need to spend at least that much to make a noticeable dent in Hillsborough's transportation deficiencies.

"We looked at the absolute minimum we could apply and still make a difference that residents would see," Sharpe said.

The vote enables the county to take on millions in new debt that would be paid off with future sales tax collections in order to expedite the work. Commissioners hope to take a request for additional sales tax assessments to voters by 2010 that would help pay for light rail.

Here's how the first half-billion is expected to be parsed:

-$237-million would go to extend 19 roads around over the county. Nearly $150-million would extend Citrus Park Drive and widen Lutz-Lake Fern Road and U.S. 301 near Riverview.

-$160-million would be used to widen or construct 67 intersections.

-$40-million would pay for buses, mostly for the county's first "bus rapid transit" route along Florida and Fletcher avenues, which are essentially express routes with fewer stops.

-$30-million would buy rights of way for future light rail lines.

-$18-million would pay for a high-tech traffic monitoring system.

-$15-million would add traffic lights at 32 intersections.

In other action:

Commissioners said they will send a letter to legislators seeking to change the makeup of certain governmental bodies to give the county more influence on them.

The request comes in response to Tampa City Council member Mary Mulhern's proposal to have cities in Hillsborough represented on the county's Environmental Protection Commission. Currently, county commissioners serve as the EPC board, though it makes regulatory decisions within Hillsborough's three cities.

Norman said he agrees with Mulhern. Representation should be based on the populations that each government serves. Unincorporated Hillsborough County has twice as many residents as the city of Tampa.

"I'm glad council member Mulhern brought that to their attention," Norman said.

Taking it a step further, Norman said that basis should be used for other government boards on which council and commission members serve or appoint members. He cited the Hillsborough County City-County Planning Commission and Tampa Sports Authority as examples.

Bill Varian can be reached at varian@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3387.