By Jim Davison, Contributor
The pandemic and its economic impact have preoccupied most of the country since February but no more so than for the people of Hillsborough County. Since March of this year punishing job losses, social restrictions, family struggles and much more have all been heaped upon us.
But what about all those local problems we’ve had to cope with prior to COVID-19? Did they just disappear? Certainly not. Some have worsened and will continue to affect us adversely.
Traffic congestion is down, travel times are lower and average speeds are up. Total traffic deaths appear to be down, but number of deaths per miles traveled appears to have increased. The Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority (HART) is in financial troubles, again, and is currently looking for “alternative revenue sources” because the infamous All for Transportation (AFT) one percent sales tax has been tied up in court for almost two years.
That’s right, you have been paying one percent more in sales tax for almost two years, but not a penny has been spent. It is only 1 cent so how bad could that be? Would you believe close to $500 million dollars has been removed from the pockets of the people of this county and is just sitting in a bank somewhere. $500 million dollars is almost double what the federal government allotted to the county in the economic stimulus.
That $500 million is more than the entire General Fund expenses this year for the city of Tampa. $500 million has been removed from the economy of Hillsborough county. Who is to blame? Just about everyone, but the monies’ return to Hillsborough county is currently being held up by none other than the Supreme Court of Florida who heard arguments on the complaints 8 months ago and may not render a verdict until after the November elections.
No matter what the Court does, it won’t fix transportation in the county. Whether the tax is upheld or invalidated, roads in south county will not be widened or added because of the Hillsborough Board of County Commissioners’ spending allocations in the AFT tax.
That means the 30-plus schools the school district says we need in south county alone can’t be built. Overcrowding and double sessions will be the daily norm with ongoing ripple effects and congestion.
To make matters worse, the county commission has canceled their $812 million 10-year Transportation Plan which is based on growing property taxes and new revenues. They passed the plan in 2016 and its cancellation means a loss of hundreds of millions of dollars in transportation funding.
You can bet that if the Court invalidates the AFT the county administrator will be crying about how far they are behind in road maintenance and how congested the roads are in south county to encourage us to pass a new sales tax.
Where are the county planners you ask? The Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO), the entity charged with unifying transportation planning, never considered school district needs. There is no planning, therefore, related to transportation requirements and new school construction.
In fact, the MPO has never shown a map of future estimated road congestion after their $32 billion 2045 Long-Range Transportation Plan (LRTP) is completed so that the school board and the people of south county could plan their futures.
It seems almost inconceivable that in the middle of the biggest pandemic in 100 years, which is pushing thousands of people in the county to struggle economically, we have a tax pulling out hundreds of millions of dollars from the county economy. This money cannot be used or returned because the Supreme Court of Florida is in no hurry to give their opinion on the legality of said tax, making the people’s economic plight that much worse.
Has any official even asked them to move on this issue? It could be the only thing that unites the litigants. To make matters worse, the BOCC has ended the only other transportation plan, based mostly on property taxes, that increased over 8 percent this year. The MPO’s new LRTP has no new or widened roads to allow the school district to build the needed schools. In fact they have less local money for transportation (excluding state and federal money) than was available prior to 2016 and the schools can’t be built no matter what the Supreme court does.
Hopefully the pandemic and all the tragedy it has brought will fade and we can begin to return to more normal hopeful lives. I fear that the leaders in this county will learn nothing and continue their disrespect for the citizens with their dysfunctional planning methods.