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Debt is foundation of roads plan

County commissioners vote 3-2 to borrow heavily to address traffic concerns.

By BILL VARIAN, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published December 20, 2001

TAMPA -- With five of them seeking re-election next year, Hillsborough commissioners on Wednesday voted to pursue a $132-million campaign to add lanes to busy roads, fix bridges, build sidewalks and install traffic signals across the county.

They'll do it by going heavily into debt, however, committing almost all of the county's Community Investment Tax dollars for the next decade.

By tackling the projects with debt, they could get many of them started within the next year.

Commissioners who voted for the campaign said they were being responsive to the most frequently voiced concern of residents: traffic.

"We're never going to get major projects done unless we take this type of step," said Commissioner Chris Hart, who made the proposal and leaves office this year because of term limits.

Commissioner Jan Platt argued against the measure, pointing out that none of the proposals is a major project, such as a new road, and that the improvements won't significantly affect traffic.

By selling bonds to get the work done, she said, the county will pay an additional $85- to $100-million in interest over the next 24 years.

"This is a fiscally irresponsible way to plan roads," Platt said.

Platt and Commission Chairwoman Pat Frank voted against the proposal, which passed 3-2. Tom Scott left the meeting with chest pains before the vote and was taken by an aide to Tampa General Hospital, where he was in good condition later in the evening. Stacey Easterling left before the vote because of a migraine headache, an aide said.

Because of those absences, commissioners agreed to hold a vote to affirm their decision Jan. 9. A public hearing on the proposed projects is tentatively scheduled for Jan. 23.

The list includes $24-million for bridge repairs and $15-million to develop community transportation plans along Brandon Main Street, near the University of South Florida, in Citrus Park and Town 'N Country. New lanes would be added to a stretch of Boyette ($18.6-million), Lumsden ($2.5-million), Bell Shoals ($3.4-million) and Racetrack ($36-million) roads, as well as Parsons Avenue ($1.5-million).

Commissioner Jim Norman, who is seeking election as a countywide commissioner next year, added a pledge to purchase land near Live Oak in New Tampa for a regional park.

"If we don't get that done, we will never get a park in that area," he said.

Hart initially proposed his transportation plan last month, arguing that historically low interest rates had presented a rare opportunity. But County Debt Management Director Mike Merrill said Wednesday that interest on long-term bonds had actually jumped in the past 30 days and may continue upward.

So Hart on Wednesday emphasized the traffic-solving aspect of his proposal in urging commissioners to press forward with the initiative.

Voters narrowly approved the half-cent sales tax -- or Community Investment Tax -- in 1996 to help pay for schools, roads, jail space and construction of a new stadium for the Tampa Bay Bucs. Proceeds from the 30-year tax are divvied up between Hillsborough County, the School Board and the cities of Tampa, Temple Terrace and Plant City.

The county spends its share based on a schedule of five-year plans and historically has paid for projects with a mix of cash and debt. Commissioners recently updated the five-year plan that will run through 2008, setting aside a projected $218-million for new fire stations, library branches, road work and a new Tampa Bay History Center.

The new plan adds $132-million in spending. To make room, the county would sell bonds to pay for some of the projects already on the CIT list that they had planned to pay for with cash, and for the new work proposed Wednesday. The commission would commit $10-million in CIT proceeds a year for 25 years to pay off the bonds.

That strategy means future commissioners will have little room to make any adjustments to their CIT spending through at least 2008. Six of seven seats on the commission are up for election next year, so the board could end up with a sharply different political makeup and different priorities.

Frank, the commission chairwoman, pointed out that sitting commissioners have frequently protested that the proposed History Center was added to the CIT spending list by a lame duck majority on the board before many of them were elected.

"I was very opposed to the previous board's making commitments that I had to swallow and live with," she said.

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