The Koch Brothers' shadowy anti-transit network lost big to grassroots transit advocates Tuesday night in Tampa, where voters overwhelmingly approved a 1-cent sales tax to pay for transportation infrastructure, including a network of trails, sidewalks and a greatly expanded transit system.
The victory comes after a persistent campaign by All for Transportation, which had twice before tried and failed to win approval for a transit expansion plan.
"In Hillsborough County, we have some of the most dangerous streets in the country and we have next to no options for people who don’t have a car," Christina Barker, volunteer activist who helped lead the effort, told Streetsblog. "This funding is really going to transform the city of Tampa and the county around it."
The one-cent sales tax hike will raise $276 million a year, 45 percent of which will be devoted to transit. The local transit agency, HART, will add 10 bus routes and 150 buses, increasing service frequency to 15 minutes on four routes. About a third of the transit money is earmarked for some sort of fixed guideway transit line — whether it is bus rapid transit or light rail. An appointed commission will decide.
"These projects are really going to transform the way people move about the county and the region," said Barker.
Meanwhile, 55 percent is dedicated to road projects aimed at improving safety and reducing congestion. Twelve percent of the funding is earmarked for biking and walking.
"We’re talking about making sure that there are crosswalks in front of schools and that there is a comprehensive network of sidewalks and bike lanes," said Barker.
Barker and a group of five other transportation advocates had proposed a transit expansion package unsuccessfully in 2010 and again in 2016.
Frustrated with local leaders, the group hired professional petitioners and brought the expansion plan to the ballot themselves earlier this year. They were joined in the campaign by major local philanthropists, most notably, Jeff Vinik, owner of the Tampa Bay Lightning, who donated $700,000 and was a major spokesperson. The group raised about $4 million to support the campaign.
"These kinds of local initiatives that are bubbling up from the people saying, 'We’ve had enough,'" said Barker.
It's a winning formula. A substantially similar plan passed in Broward County, Florida — Fort Lauderdale — on Tuesday night as well.
But Tampa had serious Astroturf opposition as well. The Koch Brothers-backed group, Americans for Prosperity, which has been fighting local transit investment around the country, tried to use the same tactics that sank a transit referendum in Nashville this year, even down to the same moniker: notaxfortracks.com. The billionaire industrialist Koch Brothers are known for financial support of far-right causes. And in recent years have taken to attacking local transit initiatives, most recently in Phoenix.
In a concession interview with the Tampa Bay Times, the group — disingenuously — compared itself to David (vs. Goliath), complaining about the "billionaire" local transit backers.