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The Case Against Go Hillsborough

From As We Heard It
by: Patrick Manteiga
Originally published July 17, 2015

Two weeks ago, this column endorsed a “No” vote on the Go Hillsborough half-penny sales tax increase for transportation. It was the first time in our long memory of our history that La Gaceta endorsed against a sales tax, property tax or special assessment increase when the money was to be used for a range of improving public infrastructure including transportation, schools, public safety, sports facilities, environmental lands, sewer, water and/or storm water.
One week ago, we met with County Administrator Mike Merrill on this topic. We listened to his pitch on why we should give our support. We came away unmoved. We shared with him that we think the plan was designed to appeal to the area’s far right. That it was a transportation plan to appease those who frowned on investing in all forms of mass transit. The plan embraces more roads, wider roads, faster roads and roads for the rich as the only answer to Hillsborough County’s future transportation needs. We told him in spite of the plan’s design, the far right would fail to support it and that he would lose the normally dependable support of the left.
Go Hillsborough’s polling was wrong. A vote on the half-cent tax increase will go down in flames.
Since then, the Tampa Bay Sierra Club added its name to La Gaceta’s as a progressive (that’s code for Left) voice in this community against this plan. We also have been joined by the Hillsborough Tea Party and the Libertarian Party of Hillsborough County. In its first few days, the plan lost the Left and the Right, with more to follow.
The Sierra Club released the following statement:
“Hillsborough County must address our long-ignored transportation troubles. We cannot meet the challenges of today or provide solutions for tomorrow without policies that control sprawl and create smart, sustainable growth.
“Sprawling development inflates the costs of infrastructure, especially roads. For decades, our county failed to control and direct growth. The result was bad for communities, bad for the environment and disastrous for transportation.
“Yet even as we struggle to overcome a legacy of sprawl, the County is considering expansion of the Urban Service Area to bring roads, water, sewer, fire, police and other services to the Manatee County line. Every expansion puts every solution to our transportation problems further out of range. Already inside the Urban Service Area we have 20,000 foreclosed “zombie” homes sitting empty, more than twice that many vacant lots, and more than 45,000 acres of available land. Hillsborough County should not expand the Urban Service Area.
“While Pasco County collects about 65% of the cost of transportation infrastructure through development fees, Hillsborough recovers less than 15%, leaving taxpayers to make up the difference. Hillsborough County taxpayers provide an average subsidy exceeding $10,000 for every new house. Before asking for a sales tax increase, Hillsborough County should require new development to pay its own way.
“The local option five cent gas tax adopted by Pasco, Manatee and almost half the counties in Florida would raise $25 million annually here, enough to cover the cost of our road maintenance. Hillsborough County should adopt the five cent gas tax to pay for road maintenance.
“Every sustainable solution must include a dramatically improved public transportation system. Cars and roads alone are the most expensive alternative. Whether or not the proposed new sales tax revenue would be sufficient to create a viable public transportation system is uncertain.
“Critically needed reforms require no referenda. The Sierra Club of Tampa Bay urges the Hillsborough County Commission to change development policy, increase development fees and adopt the local option gas tax before pursuing a sales tax increase.”
We strongly agree with the Sierra Club but feel they might be too diplomatic. It’s certain that the proposed transportation plan fails to put us on a path to public transportation. It only offers a small piece of the pie to improve the bus system and a non-guaranteed fragment for a demonstration rail project between TIA and Downtown.
Over 30 years, the guesstimate of the half-cent sales tax’s revenue is $3,525,000,000. The revenue would be divided by five governments.
Hart – $881,250,999 (25 percent)
Hillsborough County – $1,946,857,000 (55.23 percent)
City of Plant City – $60,630,000 (1.72 percent)
City of Tampa – $592,905,000 (16.82 percent)
City of Temple Terrace – $43,357,500 (1.23 percent)
There is and can be no guarantee that these governments will coordinate their transportation spending with the others. Consequently, instead of a master transportation plan for our community we will have five plans. Go Hillsborough hopes that Tampa, Hillsborough County, Plant City and Temple Terrace will share 10 percent of its money with HART to enhance the 25 percent piece of the tax allocated to buses. Why not just give HART a bigger piece of the pie?
Go Hillsborough also hopes that the City of Tampa will use a large piece of its pie for some sort of rail project between Downtown and TIA.
But why should Tampa use its money for rail while it has potholes and the County gets to use its money for potholes instead of rail?
Go Hillsborough will say that two-thirds goes to roads while the other third goes to mass transit. The guarantee is only a 75 percent roads/25 percent transit split.
The other big problem we have is the idea that a temporary sales tax is how the County wants to fund road maintenance. Road maintenance should be funded by recurring revenue. The County says it has a huge backlog of road maintenance that is hundreds of millions dollars.
The consultant says traffic is the most important issue concerning voters. That it far exceeds our concerns regarding crime, jobs and the economy. Yet, the County just announced $100,000,000 in additional revenues that will be used mostly for raises not roads. We understand that just two percent of the $100,000,000 will go to maintenance. That’s just wrong.
As Sierra Club pointed out, the Commission failed to pass a gas tax to pave roads and increase impact fees for new intersections and more lanes. A special temporary tax needs to be used to enhance our community infrastructure not band-aid the Commission’s failure to do its job.
This plan lays out a future where we continue to have a bus system that won’t meet the critical mass to provide a fast, far-reaching, 7-day-a-week, reliable mass transit system. It fails to plan and start the implementation of a light-rail system. Instead, it will add more roads and widen existing ones to service suburbs we have yet to build, and patch holes.
We reject that future for our community.
Merrill explained to us that this is the transportation plan the people want. This is the maximum they will pay and that they prefer a sales tax over a gas tax, property tax or impact fees.
He seems to believe it and bases his faith on Go Hillsborough’s work with our citizens in workshops, focus groups, telephone town halls, a poll and the 3,000 likes Go Hillsborough got on Facebook.
The consultants did not want to share the poll and its details with the press, but after a two-week wait, we now have it and we think Merrill is basing his opinion on some shady work of the consultants.
The poll is a mess and the plan cherry picks positive pieces while ignoring more telling data.
Go Hillsborough started its engagement with citizens in November, 2014. It had six small focus groups that lasted 90 minutes each. The groups gave Go Hillsborough a good feel for the direction of the conversation as it engaged more people. Some of the things learned we saw reported in the poll and included in the study’s conclusion, but one thing that was learned from the focus groups and never dealt with again should have spelled doom for passing a tax early on. The report reads, “We discussed the realities of the significant transportation revenue shortfall facing the County, cities and Hillsborough Area Regional Transit and the worsening, negative impacts it is having on quality of life and economic stability. We learned that focus group participants did not make a distinction between state and local projects. Their perception was that transportation funding is flowing and readily available because of the extensive construction on state roads currently underway. Additionally, they express fatigue with “too much construction.”
How does government convince voters to approve more taxes on the premise that it doesn’t have enough money when out area is saturated with road construction? The poll reported 34 percent think “traffic congestion” is the most important issue – a lot higher than second place “jobs and the economy” at 19 percent. But the poll failed to determine why. The question – if congestion got worse in the last five-to-10 years – came back with 78 percent saying yes. Once again, the “why” wasn’t pursued.
If the people think traffic congestion is caused by road construction, they aren’t likely to vote to fund more construction.
Our own driving experience is impacted every day by what seems like never-ending construction. It is the chief cause of the traffic congestion and delays in our driving.
The poll also shows that 95 percent of those polled believe taxes are either “much too high,” “somewhat too high” or “about right,” yet the poll later shows the contradiction of 53 percent supporting more taxes to “pay for traffic congestion relief.”
Go Hillsborough insists that a sales tax increase of a half-cent is the only type of tax voters will approve to fund transportation, but it’s obvious to people in the survey biz that the poll was designed to skew the numbers. The poll asked if one would oppose or support the following ways of generating new money to pay for “traffic congestion relief.” The three questions were phrased this way:
“12. Increase the county sales tax by one-half percent.
“13. Increase the county gas tax by five cents per gallon.
“14. Increase the property taxes equal to about six dollars per month for every 100 thousand dollars of home value.”
These are not apples-to-apples statements. The winner, No. 12, never mentions money. It addresses the increase as a percentage while the other two less-popular taxes mention money – cents or dollars. One identifies the charge is by the gallon and the other addresses a monthly charge. Phrased this way, who wouldn’t approve of No. 12 over the other two? The statement is so vague it’s hard to calculate its cost.
The poll then retested sales tax and property tax in a later question, but gas tax was not retested.
The plan addressed that the “largest amount of money” should be for fixing roads and uses the poll as support for this conclusion, yet the only question asked on the poll regarding this was on roads. The participants weren’t given a chance to say they thought buses, trains, mass transit, dedicated bus lanes or bike lanes should receive the “largest amount of money.” There was a reason the consultants didn’t want the poll to be made public. It’s obvious it was designed to produce a particular answer – that a half-cent sales tax for roads is the only way to have a majority of voters say yes.
As we look at the crosstabs, the percents and the questions, we are more convinced that this tax will fail miserably, as it should.
We even heard that a recent, non-biased, larger-sampled poll of just Democrats showed this tax can’t pass with that group. That kills this tax. Go Hillsborough’s poll shows if you break down the “for or against” the one-half-cent increase in sales tax by party, Democratic support is the only way to pass this tax.
For Against
Democrats 50% 34%
Republicans 28% 41%
Independent 22% 25%
This tax will fail with the voters, so why all the smoke and mirrors to convince the County Commission to place it on the ballot?
The only conspiracy theory we can come up with is money. We believe those who are heading this charge want to be hired to run the losing campaign and continue to be paid by the County for additional studies.
These people have already soaked the taxpayers for close to $1 million for this sloppy work. Why not keep the money flowing? There is maybe another $500,000 in County contracts for more research on the transportation issue and possibly a couple of million for a campaign. The only tracks that are going to be built by this effort is for the consultant’s money train.

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