Starting Jan. 1, Hillsborough County residents will pay an 8.5 percent sales tax, the highest in the state.
Voters approved two referenda this week to raise taxes for transportation improvements and school repairs.
The former measure, a one percent tax increase for transportation, was the result of a citizen-led campaign known as All For Transportation. It passed with a little over 57 percent of the vote.
All For Transportation chair Tyler Hudson says once the tax revenue starts coming in next year, county leaders can use the money to start addressing its estimated $9 billion backlog in transportation projects.
"We know what work needs to be done,” he said. “We've got plenty of plans, plenty of studies, a lot of analysis – it's time to start doing the work.”
He says after speaking with citizens and county officials throughout the campaign, the first priority seems to be relieving traffic congestion.
“Rush-hour traffic has become a phenomenon 24/7 in too many parts of the county,” Hudson said. “So congestion relief, what does that mean? It means computerizing traffic lights, adding turn lanes where needed, making sure our intersections flow more smoothly, etc.”
Another top issue is improving safety on the roads.
“We are reminded on a near-weekly basis of the tragedies that happen on our roads…12 percent of the roads portion of this money must be spent on bike and pedestrian safety,” Hudson said.
The referendum outlined how the $276 million the tax increase is expected to raise annually would be divided up amongst different transportation areas. Some will go to roads, while another large chunk of the funds will go to HART, Hillsborough’s bus system. Expanding public transit is a long-term goal of the 30-year plan.
Another thing included in the referendum was the creation of an independent oversight committee that's meant to ensure money raised for transportation projects gets spent fairly. Hudson says there will be 13 members on the committee, each chosen by a variety of county leaders. He says the selection process will begin shortly, but may not be complete by the time the tax increase goes into effect.
"One thing that we're going to be looking for initially is making sure that that committee looks like Hillsborough County in terms of age, gender, race, experience, where they live – we need it to be a truly balanced committee,” Hudson said.
The passage of this transportation measure marks the first time in years an initiative of this kind was successful in Hillsborough. Two years ago, the County Commission voted to keep the Go Hillsborough plan off the ballot. A referendum known as Moving Hillsborough Forward was also defeated in 2010.
Even this referendum faced some heavy opposition from anti-tax groups, some claiming the funds would only really benefit the city of Tampa and others blasting the campaign’s backing by wealthy supporters like Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik and philanthropist Frank Morsani.
Tyler Hudson said the victory was humbling.
“We patiently and methodically explained to voters what this investment meant, what it meant to not vote for this given 700,000 people are expected to move here in the next 30 years, and I think the people of Hillsborough County showed their true colors that we are problem solvers,” he said. “We are willing to invest in our future and not kick the can down the road anymore because we did that and it got us the transportation system that we have today.”