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Battle lines forming over Orange County transportation tax vote

ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. — As September comes to a close, campaigns and debates are springing to life on both sides of what will likely be the most consequential vote in Orange County this November.

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In front of voters: whether the county should raise the sales tax from 6.5% to 7.5% to fund a transportation overhaul.

The $600 million per year collected from that would be used to fund a variety of road, sidewalk and bike path improvements across the county, as well as a massive expansion of the Lynx bus system and Sunrail network.

Supporters say the proposal is decades overdue to help ease the region’s traffic woes and note that 51% of the tax would be paid by tourists.

READ: Orange County campaign pushes for one-cent transportation tax

“The joke is you drive an hour in Orlando, and you’re still in Orlando. We’ve got to fix that,” Orlando YIMBY co-leader Austin Valle said. “You’ve got to invest in your communities and your transportation to make that work.”

Despite voters’ typical aversions to tax increases, early signs point to the “yes” side, which is backed by many county officials, as having the upper hand due to the widespread frustration.

However, a small but growing network of voters is organizing to force the county to hit the brakes. The “Ax the Tax” movement has been handing out yard signs to voters of all stripes to stop what they believe is bad policy.

Read: How the Inflation Reduction Act will affect Floridians

“Don’t raise taxes during [a] recession, the plan is not equitable to underserved communities and it spends money on SunRail,” Brian Christopher Henley rattled off as he listed the reasons his coalition will vote no.

Henley’s group agrees with the yes campaign in one respect: the overhaul to the transit network is sorely needed. However, they believe a sales tax increase is the wrong way to go about it.

Instead, he offered suggestions that would target the tourist district more heavily, such as a special tax improvement district, and rather than greenlight the county’s “wish list” all at once, he said he would start with the most critical upgrades, which he specified is the bus system to get service workers to and from their jobs.

READ: Orange County mayor relaunches initiative for 1% sales tax hike for transportation improvements

He also said the county and city governments needed to address some fundamental issues like the low density neighborhoods it is trying to run bus lines through.

“It’s trying to sell everybody something without giving the underserved areas what they really need, so we think they should first start with them,” he said.

READ: Orange County’s newest sales pitch: higher taxes, more transit

Supporters like Valle counter that the county has done enough kicking the can down the road, and a dedicated revenue stream watched by a citizen’s oversight board is the right way to go.

“Now’s the time to finally fix the mistakes that had been made over the last several decades,” he said.

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