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Joe Henderson: Will this time be the charm for Hillsborough transportation tax?

For decades, Hillsborough County’s idea of a local transportation fix has been basically to fill existing potholes (sort of) and take years to build more streets and roads that are outdated before they open.

The only thing everyone seems to agree with is that the community has never the will to pay for a comprehensive plan that would alleviate stifling congestion along city and county roadways.

The county’s exploding population growth no longer makes that a practical plan though, which is why local heavy-hitters Jeff Vinik and Frank Morsani have taken matters into their own hands.

They are backing a plan by a group calling itself All for Transportation that hopes to put a sales tax referendum before voters in November to raise an estimated $280 million annually to fund transit needs.

The tax would run for 30 years. Supporters currently are working to get 49,000 signers on a petition to place the issue on the November ballot. So far, they have presented 5,000 to the local elections office.

Under the proposal, 45 percent of the money would go to the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit for upgraded bus service and pay for other mass transit. The rest would be divided among the county, city of Tampa, Temple Terrace and Plant City for congestion relief.

The group, which also includes attorney Tyler Hudson, who worked on Barack Obama‘s 2008 presidential campaign in Florida, and well-known GOP supporters Nancy Watkins and her husband Robert Watkins.

Well, that’s good. These are serious people who have recognized a serious community need and are trying to do something about it.

But we’ve seen this movie before, haven’t we?

Presented with a similar sales-tax increase proposal in 2010 at the height of the recessions, Hillsborough voters resoundingly said NOPE!

Opponents said one reason it failed was the magic four-letter word: R-A-I-L.

Supporters tried again in 2016 to get a plan called Go Hillsborough before voters, but the county commission wouldn’t even let it go on a ballot. By using petitions this time, transit supporters could be able to bypass the tax-skittish commissioners.

And lest we forget, Green Light Pinellas got a red light from voters in 2014.

So yeah, there is some work to do.

But according to the Tampa Bay Times, Vinik and Morsani kicked in $150,000 each to the effort, and both names carry considerable cache. Vinik owns the Tampa Bay Lightning and is spearheading a $3 billion makeover of Tampa’s downtown waterfront.

Morsani is known for his philanthropy and community involvement.

Tampa and Hillsborough County, meanwhile, is becoming increasingly noted for rapid population growth and a transportation system that is woefully short of options that don’t include cars and toll roads.

That’s no longer an option.

Plan Hillsborough noted in November that the county is adding roughly the population of Temple Terrace (24,000) every year. In 2017, the U.S. Census showed that the Tampa area had the fourth-highest growth rate in the country in the past year.

The need is there.

But there also is a need for details about how All for Transportation proposes the money to be spent. The group promises that information will be forthcoming once it gets the signatures needed to put this on the ballot.

If that happens, then they have to sell it.

I mean, really sell it.

The critics will be out there in force with pitchforks and flaming torches, demanding an accounting for how every cent will be spent for the 30-year-life of the tax. Even after they get it, those same people will decry waste, inefficiency and say that things aren’t so bad that we need this.

Assuming they get this on the ballot, supporters will have until November 6 to convince enough people the critics are wrong.

The future of the county could be riding on the answer.

Written By

I have a 45-year career in newspapers, including nearly 42 years at The Tampa Tribune. Florida is wacky, wonderful, unpredictable and a national force. It's a treat to have a front-row seat for it all.

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