HILLSBOROUGH COUNTY, Fla. — When Hillsborough County voters head to the polls next month, they'll decide whether or not to hike sales taxes to pay for transportation upgrades.
Supporters say it would help ease traffic congestion, while opponents question where the money's going and who's behind the effort.
But the one thing everyone seems to agree on is that the roads are more congested.
“It's generally about 45 minutes to an hour getting in,” said Eric Holder, who commutes from New Tampa to Downtown Tampa for work. “Some days it’s worse.”
U.S Census data shows the average commute in Hillsborough County is about 28 minutes each way per day. That adds up to 245 hours a year – about 10 hours more than just five years ago.
“It's gone up more than double what the national average is,” said Tyler Hudson, who is one of the leaders of All for Transportation.
That’s the group behind Hillsborough County referendum No. 2, which asks voters to pay 1 percent more in county sales taxes for the next 30 years.
It’s estimated that the measure will raise about $16 billion to spend on transportation.
“The majority of this funding is going to go to fix roads,” said Hudson. “That's going to be reducing congestion, adding turn lanes, fixing potholes.”
But 45 percent of the money would go to public transit, which could fund things like rapid bus routes, light rail ferries and autonomous vehicles.
“I catch three buses to get down here and I catch three to get home,” said Deborah Spencer, daily HART bus commuter who plans to support the tax increase. “If I have to pay that to get better service, I'm all for it.”
But only about two percent of Hillsborough residents use public transit, and the most recent numbers show ridership is down over previous years.
Hudson says if the referendum is approved, there would be major improvements in mass transit, including more routes and more options for riders.
“That's going to keep people off the roads,” said Hudson. “That's going to reduce congestion.”
Sharon Calvert, a member of Fix Our Roads First, said she opposes the referendum.
“It massively overfunds transit and massively underfunds adding new road capacity,” said Calvert.
Her organization was formed several years ago to oppose Go Hillsborough, a similar recent effort to increase sales taxes to fund transportation improvements.
That measure, which would have levied a half cent sales tax for 20 years, was voted down by the Hillsborough County Commission and never made it to the ballot.
Calvert says many of the same supporters of that effort are backing the new All For Transportation campaign.
“It's downtown special interests that have funded this,” said Calvert. “This is not a grassroots initiative.”
Records obtained by the ABC Action News I-Team show All For Transportation has received more than $1 million in donations to get the measure on the ballot and pay for the marketing campaign.
Donors include a business owned by Tampa General Hospital, major real estate developers, construction companies and Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik – who contributed $150,000 to the group.
Hudson says supporters of the ballot initiative are only trying to solve Hillsborough County’s traffic headaches.
“This is money that's going to be raised here in Hillsborough County for the benefit of people in Hillsborough County,” said Hudson. “It's only going to get worse. This is as good as it's going to get if we do nothing.”
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