Little more than a month ago, a citizens group set out with the goal of placing a sales tax referendum on the November ballot in Hillsborough County to address transportation needs.
The odds of success didn’t seem especially promising.
After all, asking voters to approve something that will cost them money has been a tough sell in recent years. Even when the need is as obvious as the one for an overhaul of the transportation system in Hillsborough, voters and politicians have been firm in their refusal to approve the money.
But on a warm, humid Friday morning, volunteers from the group gathered outside the Supervisor of Elections Office on Falkenburg Road in Brandon to deliver box-loads of signed petitions that pushed the drive past 70,000 signatures — well above the approximately 49,000 needed to get this on the ballot.
It beat the deadline to submit the petitions.
“People have felt powerless, and this proves they are not,” Tyler Hudson, chairman of All For Transportation, said after his group led a petition drive that bypassed the County Commission and went straight to the people.
About six weeks ago, the group began a frantic push to place a one-cent per dollar sales tax increase for 30 years on the ballot in November. The tax, estimated to generate $280 million the first year, will be divvied up among Hillsborough Area Rapid Transit, the county, and the cities of Tampa, Temple Terrace and Plant City for a variety of transportation needs.
The effort was buoyed by $150,000 contributions each from Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik, businessman and philanthropist Frank Morsani, the Tampa Bay Partnership business group, and a development firm owned by the family of former Democratic U.S. Senate nominee Patrick Murphy.
The grassroots strategy was used after the County Commission by a 4-3 vote declined to let a transit plan called Go Hillsborough go on the 2016 ballot. The petition drive is a rarely used gambit that will amend the county’s charter, making Commission approval unnecessary.
Without substantial upgrades, the county’s already chronic substandard transportation system could be overwhelmed in a few years as projections call for explosive population growth.
Volunteer Rena Frazier called it a “historic day” and added that while gathering signatures, people stressed that they are tired of choking traffic and want more transportation options.
“People are ready to get this solved,” she said.
Janet Scherberger, vice president of communications at Tampa International Airport, was among the volunteers who worked to secure enough signatures. She said she was acting as a private citizen concerned about the county’s future.
“I am genuinely interested in making sure we have transportation options,” she said.
The elections office has already started the process of verifying that people who signed petitions are registered to vote in Hillsborough, and more than 6,000 of the approximately 50,000 petitions delivered before Friday have been rejected.
The office has 30 days to complete the process, but Communications Director Gerri Kramer said she believes it will take that long.
And when will the work of selling this to the public begin, Hudson was asked?
He answered with one word.