Hillsborough County group on transit votes to reconfigure HART


Although all indications had been leading in this direction, there still appeared to be some surprise in the room when the members of the Hillsborough County Transportation Leadership today voted unanimously to reconfigure HART to make it the central transit agency for the county moving forward.

But the execution is complicated, said Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill, who introduced his plan toward the end of the two-hour meeting held at the County Center. Among the thorny details are exactly how the individual votes of each member will be weighted — the Leadership group consists of the seven Hillsborough County Commissioners and the mayors of Tampa, Temple Terrace and Plant City. 

The current HART board includes seven members representing Hillsborough County (including three County Commissioners), three members representing Tampa, a Temple Terrace representative, and two members representing the state.

Merrill said the plan to remodel HART is similar to what the county did a year and a half ago with what used to be called the Homeless Coalition of Hillsborough County, and has now been renamed the Tampa Hillsborough Homeless Initiative. "We're using the existing organizational governing structure and then rearranging some of the pieces to make it more effective for the customers that we serve," Merrill told CL after the meeting. 

And in an interesting twist based on Commissioner Victor Crist's suggestion, the plan would incorporate the county's troubled Public Transportation Commission, something that met the initial approval of Mayor Bob Buckhorn, a critic of the agency.

As to what this means for the current HART board? Well, it means that it could be dissolved at some point in the near future. But Merrill says that the new agency would maintain the two members appointed by the governor, allowing the reorganization to occur without involving the state legislature. 

Always hovering around the subject of expanded transportation choices in the county is the eventuality of a referendum of some sort in 2016; Merrill, in creating this remodeled agency now, would give it plenty of time to craft such a plan, nearly two-and-a-half years in the future.

Commissioner Kevin Beckner said it was important that members of the County's MPO literally be seated at the table. Merrill agreed, but said they would be non-voting members. 

"I'm a little concerned," said Tampa Tea Party co-founder Sharon Calvert after the meeting. She said that the fact that the board will now be made up of elected officials, as opposed to HART's current board structure, could bring cronyism and corruption. 

The vote on reconfiguring HART came after a meeting that was dominated by discussion about reconfiguring or expanding roads in Tampa and Hillsborough County. One of the more interesting suggestions made to Jean Duncan, the city of Tampa's Transportation Manager, came from County Commissioner Sandy Murman, who said she believed that busy Howard Avenue in South Tampa should have its lanes increased from two to four. "Something's gotta give," she said, referring to the increased congestion in the area due to its centrality to so many amenities.

And Hillsborough County Strategic Planning Director Eric Johnson presented the findings of a recent survey taken of County residents regarding transportation. The one finding that created the most discussion was the over 70 percent of those surveyed that said they never use public transit. The next-highest poll ranking was 11 percent — for those who do so only on special occasions. 

BOCC Chairman Mark Sharpe said that was why transit needed to be changed in the county. "My frustration is that it wasn't designed for the choice rider but it was created as the last option," he said about the current level of service in Hillsborough. "You redesign it, the numbers will change," he added.

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