Buckhorn says HART could be main transportation agency in Hillsborough, but not quite yet

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Mayor Buckhorn & Alex Sink in Curtis Hixon Park on Tuesday
  • Mayor Buckhorn & Alex Sink in Curtis Hixon Park on Tuesday
In his first couple of years in office, Bob Buckhorn didn't have too much to do about one of his city's greatest problems: transportation. While the Hillsborough County Commission dithered and did nothing in the aftermath of the 2010 transit tax failure, the mayor tried to rally Hillsborough state lawmakers to get behind a plan to allow big cities like Tampa to be able to hold their own tax referendums in 2013, to no avail. 

But like Pam Iorio before him, the mayor has now decided that he needs to be a leader in addressing the region's transportation woes. In his State of the City Address in March, he called for another countywide referendum on a sales tax to support transportation, and forcefully called on everyone to support Greenlight Pinellas, the transit tax up for a vote in Pinellas County this fall that would lead to an expanded bus service and a 24-network light-rail system running from St. Petersburg to Clearwater Beach.

Buckhorn is also a member of a transportation policy group that includes the county commissioners and the mayors of Temple Terrace and Plant City that has been meeting over the past year. The group has been discussing which governing body would head the various projects if a referendum were to succeed, with many pointing towards HART as that possible vehicle.

"I think it can be a good starting point," Buckhorn said on Tuesday. "HART is the conduit for the federal dollars for this area .There’s no one else who can really handle that role."

But the mayor believes that as currently constituted, there's no way HART is ready to be that agency, espousing the views expressed by HART's current chair Mike Suarez that more elected officials need to be a part of it. (Currently, three county commissioners and City Council members from Tampa and Temple Terrace constitute the elected officials on the board).

"I think in its current configuration it would not work," Buckhorn says, adding that not only more elected officials but also "an expanded jurisdiction" could be the keys to creating a "robust" transportation committee that could deal with roads, rail and mass transit.

Buckhorn says he senses that the sentiment of those in transportation leadership seems to be that something different has to happen, "that you have to have a different animal in order to do what we are contemplating doing. And HART in its current configuration is not that vehicle to do it. So how we get there and what it looks like in the end, I don’t know yet."

HART is going through another transition, with Katherine Eagan named last month to replace outgoing CEO Philip Hale on an interim basis. Some HART members have said they're uncertain about recruiting a new leader without clearer direction about where the agency is going. And the mayor suggests that it could do with better public perception. 

"If we're going to embark on a referendum, then the public needs to have confidence in that agency to do it. I’m not sure that they have that it now," he says.

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