In 2011-2012, the Hillsborough MPO conducted 18 months of public opinion research, and ultimately endorsed exploration of funding lower-cost transportation improvements — including improved intersections, more bus service, safer sidewalks, crosswalks, and trails, as well as demonstration rail and rapid bus projects — as part of its next long range plan. Such projects would need to be shown with a new source of funding in the plan, which is required to be cost-feasible. One possibility is a sales tax that would need approval from voters in Tampa and/or Hillsborough County.
Two years earlier, Hillsborough County’s voters had turned down a sales tax referendum to fund transportation projects. But voters in Tampa and Temple Terrace approved it by majorities of up to 60%.
This left the MPO asking questions:
- What do voters think about transportation?
- What do they really want?
- How should we pay for future needs?
The MPO hired a professional public opinion firm to find out. Focus group research conducted among countywide voters revealed that the economy and jobs were the number one concern followed by traffic and transportation. Participants saw congestion as a failure to plan ahead, and expressed frustration with intersections as well as unsafe walking and bicycling. They also told the MPO that basic bus service was important, although many lacked familiarity with their local transit system.
A second round of focus groups asking voters about taxes and funding revealed that transportation is regarded a problem today that will only get worse. Weighing in on the variety of taxes or fees that could pay for transportation, they expressed broader forms such as sales and gas taxes were preferred. But focus group members also expressed concern about government’s ability to be accountable, transparent, and deliver on its promises.
To quantify these opinions, the MPO conducted a statistically representative telephone poll of 800+ Hillsborough County voters in July-August 2012. Similar to the previous research, 39% said that jobs and employment were the most important issue, with the economy and public transportation tied for second. Eighty-five percent cited traffic congestion as a serious concern. Road and bridge maintenance, intersection improvements like turn lanes and smart signals, better bus service, safer walkways, and a rail line on under-used freight tracks gained support as higher priorities. Survey respondents were evenly split on whether they would support a penny sales tax for transportation, but 17% of those opposed would change their mind if the tax were reduced to a half-penny.
Responding to what was learned, the MPO voted to explore new funding strategies for transportation for the update of the long range plan. This includes, but is not limited to, a county and/or city voter-approved sales tax. The MPO has already gone on record in support of a change in state law to enable major cities to hold their own sales tax referenda.
Key features in this funding strategy:
- Encompass a broad mix of projects, including intersection turn lanes, smart signals, bus system expansion, better sidewalks, crosswalks and trails
- A portion dedicated to communities to help pay for local priority projects
- Oversight should come from an independent group such as the MPO to ensure that the new funding is spent for its intended purposes