Mike Suarez does believe Hillsborough County can pass a transit tax in 2016

Posted by Mitch Perry on Sat, Jun 28, 2014 at 11:03 AM

HART Interim CEO Katharine Eagan & board chair Mike Suarez at CL's offices on Friday.
  • HART Interim CEO Katharine Eagan & board chair Mike Suarez at CL's offices on Friday.

Mike Suarez wants to be perfectly clear: Despite what was reported in Thursday's Tampa Bay Times, he believes a transit tax on the 2016 ballot in Hillsborough County can be successful. 

"I think we can do a referendum in 2016, I don’t see any reason why we can’t do it," the HART board chair told a group of reporters at CL's Ybor City offices on Friday afternoon. "I wish we would come up with a plan and get going on this."

But Thursday's Times quoted him as saying, "If they're looking at 2016, I think the boat has sailed on that," adding that "There's no way we're going to put out a referendum and get the kind of synergy that Greenlight [Pinellas] has."

Suarez said the conversation with the Times editorial board centered around Greenlight and why its supporters in Pinellas have been more successful in rallying the public and business community around a transit plan than was the case in Hillsborough in 2010. "I made a comment that 'We can't do what they did in Greenlight Pinellas. We don't have the time, that ship has sailed, and if you wanted to do the same model, you'd probably have to wait until 2018.' Now did I say that exactly as I said now? No. Did I say definitely that we have to delay the vote? No." 

Needless to say, the comment reverberated around the pro-transit/light-rail crowd in Hillsborough County. Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn told CL on Thursday, "I’m firmly committed to getting this done by 2016. I think two and a half years is plenty of time to develop the grassroots consensus just like Greenlight has done. I don’t know why Mike thinks that we can’t get it done. I’m intent on getting it on the ballot in 2016 and running an aggressive campaign."

Suarez says the most important thing for County leaders to do to begin momentum for a referendum is to figure out where the money would come from and how it would be distributed. And that's also been raised as a concern by the pro-transit group Connect Tampa Bay, who don't believe County Administrator Mike Merrill's stated comments that a plan would be divided between roads and transit on a 50-50 basis.

(Correction. Connect Tampa Bay's Kevin Thurman disputes the above stated assertion, writing in the comments section below that "we believe that Merrill wants the split to be 50-50. What is true is that the existing projects reviewed by the elected officials amount to $20 for roads for every $1 in new transit.").

Suarez is also suspect about the proportion of roads to transit, based on data and comments from the Transportation for Economic Development group over the past year. Pointing out that the failed 2010 referendum had a 75-25 percentage breakdown of transit to roads, he said, "if we don't get anywhere near that we're not going to be able to build a robust system, and I mean something like Bus Rapid Transit will be very difficult to build with that kind of money." A light-rail system, he added, would also be out of the question if the proportion of funding devoted to transit weren't sufficient.

That group (which also is referred to as the Transportation Leadership Group) was scheduled to meet on Thursday for the first time since Merrill announced last month that it would be the agency to take over HART, but that meeting had to be canceled because of Suarez' s commitment with a Tampa City Council meeting. Its next meeting isn't scheduled now until August.

Joining Suarez in CL's offices was Katharine Eagan, HART's interim CEO, who is making it a priority to get more into the public eye to extol the virtues of HART's current services. She appeared earlier in the week at the Emerge Tampa Bay event that featured PSTA board chairman Ken Welch and Hillsborough County Commissioner Kevin Beckner, and says she needs to continue to do that. 

Eagan replaced outgoing CEO Philip Hale earlier this year, with the board deciding not to pursue a full-time leader until after the dust clears this fall, with not only Pinellas but also Polk County voting on transit referendums. "Until we know what happens in November in both counties, plus until what the [Hillsborough] county decides where they're going, until the reality settles down a little bit you don't know what you're reacting to." Either way, she says, HART will continue to plug away.







Comments (4)

Showing 1-4 of 4

i vote NO NO NO
FIX the roads you have now that are falling apart like in SOUTH TAMPA $$$

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Posted by pltctytc on 06/28/2014 at 1:40 PM

The critical transportation funding gap in Hillsborough County is with roads. HART spends about $70 million on transit but next year the county has less than $9 million to improve and maintain our existing road infrastructure. Our local gas taxes fill our pot holes. Roads are the foundation of our local transportation system that 98% of us use daily and there is a critical funding shortage for roads. Therefore, any transportation plan must be road-centric because even buses need roads.

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Posted by FundRoadsFirst on 06/28/2014 at 4:27 PM

We must ask for a correction. You state: "And that's also been raised as a concern by the pro-transit group Connect Tampa Bay, who don't believe County Administrator Mike Merrill's stated comments that a plan would be divided between roads and transit on a 50-50 basis."

We believe that Merrill wants the split to be 50-50. What is true is that the existing projects reviewed by the elected officials amount to $20 for roads for every $1 in new transit.

Also that allocation is insufficient. It should be at least 75-25 of new revenue. That would bring total transit spending in Hillsborough county to around 20% of all transportation. Meaning that our transportation dollars would continue to be mostly for roads as it has always been.

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Posted by Kevin Thurman on 06/28/2014 at 4:48 PM

Also to the previous commenter let me lay out some actual facts:

"The critical transportation funding gap in Hillsborough County is with roads."

There is gaps in all transportation options & all must be included in any referendum.

"HART spends about $70 million on transit but next year the county has less than $9 million to improve and maintain our existing road infrastructure."

You can't cheery pick one stat and then compare it another. The total HART budget is $70 million (local/state/fed.fares). The total county/citie road budget is over $210 million. That doesn't include the avg $800 million spent each year by FDOT/Feds on roads. Meaning transit continues to be funded at around 6% of transportation spending. That doesn't even include the $572 million spent on roads compared to $21 spent on transit from the previous sales tax.

"Our local gas taxes fill our pot holes."

They do, and the cities don't have the maintenance backlog the county does. Why?

"Roads are the foundation of our local transportation system that 98% of us use daily and there is a critical funding shortage for roads."

True which is why even Connect Tampa Bay has long argued for over $40 to $66 million more a year for roads from local funds

"Therefore, any transportation plan must be road-centric because even buses need roads."

The entire plan will always be -- the referendum spending is a completely different matter. If the 50-50 split is done than Transit will end up with an increase of from 6% of all transportation spending to 9% not much of a change. The countywide transportation plan will continue to be road centric.

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Posted by Kevin Thurman on 06/28/2014 at 4:56 PM
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