Hillsborough commissioners vote to add transportation sales tax to November ballot

Hillsborough County commissioners voted 5-2 in favor of putting the transportation sales tax on the November ballot. 

At least 50 speakers signed up to voice their opinions on the proposal ahead of Wednesday evening's vote. 

"Give us an equal opportunity by way of meaningful transportation," one speaker who was in favor of adding the transportation tax to the ballot said. "It is a basic fundamental right. Help us by putting this on the ballot by giving us an opportunity to vote. And I am ready to vote."

"I understand that our roads need to be fixed. I am for that. I understand that mass transit is a good thing. I am not against any of that. What I am against is that you guys want to propose an additional tax on this," one speaker against it said.

While commissioners approved the measure, it’ll ultimately be up to voters this Fall to decide whether to give a 1-cent sales tax increase the green light. The tax would be used to fund two decades worth of road, transportation and infrastructure projects.

Voters agreed to an almost identical proposal in 2018, but Hillsborough Commissioner Stacy White derailed the tax with a lawsuit over a technicality in the voter-approved measure. The state Supreme Court struck down the tax in 2021, freezing the funds collected and stalling nearly four years of transportation projects.

As the commission prepares to put the tax to a referendum once again, voters may be feeling a lot less generous than they were in 2018. 

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"I’ve come to realize that while the plan is good, the timing is off," Commissioner Ken Hagan, who supported past sales tax referendums said at a meeting earlier this month. "The circumstances today are far different. This is not 2016 or 2018. To the contrary. To say folks are struggling today is to put it mildly." 

While inflation is now on the rise, so is the county’s population. Fellow commissioners said Hillsborough County badly needs the transportation funding. 

"In the first two months of 2022, over 9,000 people moved to Hillsborough County," said Hillsborough Commission Chair Kimberly Overman. "I want to make sure people realize that their vote in November is critically important."

The population in Hillsborough County has swollen to more than 1.5 million, a 25-percent increase in the last decade. It’s one of the fastest growing areas in the country, but several commissioners said infrastructure has not kept pace. 

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"We know that we are in a 10 to 20-year deficit in investing in our infrastructure," said Overman. 

Hillsborough’s transportation needs continue to multiply. The population boom has put more cars on the road, increasing traffic and further taxing existing and outdated structures. It’s also exposed a glaring under-investment in public transportation. 

"We only have 30 bus routes in Hillsborough County. That is not an effective transit system," said Overman. 

The sales tax increase would not only allow the county to address its transportation needs, it would also give it the ability to unlock hundreds of millions of dollars in federal grant money. 

Last Fall, congress approved the largest federal investment ever made in the country's infrastructure. The bipartisan Infrastructure and Jobs Act makes $1.2 trillion available to help fund myriad transportation and infrastructure projects from roads and bridges to electric vehicle charging stations and protections against sea level rise. 

READ: Florida to receive $244.9M in federal funding to repair hundreds of bridges

A Hillsborough commission report estimates the county could qualify for up to $229 million in federal grant funding, but in order to apply for the competitive grants, they’d first have to show they can match the funds. Without voter approval this fall, Overman said Hillsborough won't have the money and will likely miss out. 

"When we have $1.2 trillion invested in infrastructure at the federal level and our local taxpayers and residents can’t tap into it because we don’t have the local resources, I think those that pay federal taxes might have a problem with that," said Overman. "We need our voters' help. We can put it out there but without a referendum and a positive vote we won’t have the resources."

Time isn’t on their side either. The federal dollars are only available over the next five years, or until funds are depleted. If Hillsborough voters don’t approve the transportation tax this Fall, their next shot would be approval in 2024. By then it could be too late. 

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Not only would the county be two years behind everyone else applying for the same grants, the money could already be spoken for by then.

"I want to make sure that we have the best shot at not only being able to generate revenue for our local needs but also capitalize on the fact that we have a federal pot of money that we need to take advantage of," said Overman. 

Commissioners approved adding the transportation sales tax to this November’s ballot. It’ll be up to Hillsborough’s voters to decide whether their roads, transit and infrastructure are worth the investment once again.