TAMPA — A Hillsborough County coalition lobbying for transportation improvements wants government officials to set a specific deadline for delivering proposals on road and mass transit projects.
The coalition also wants officials to set dates for public hearings in different areas of the county to make it easier for people to participate in the ongoing transportation debate.
The groups have scheduled a press conference for 10 a.m. Friday in the lobby of the Fredrick B. Karl County Center downtown to announce their concerns.
“Everybody decided to sit down at a table. Now the next step is for them to set deadlines for themselves so the public knows when they’re making decisions and what they’re making them about,” said Kevin Thurman, the executive director of Connect Tampa Bay, a group leading the charge for improved mass transit.
In March, the county commission formed a transportation policy group that includes the seven commissioners, the county’s three mayors, and the chairman of the HART bus system board. The group was to meet once a month with corresponding public forums a week or so afterwards.
But some of the speakers at the first public forum Tuesday night were confused by the process, which was guided by a facilitator. Many expected county commissioners to be there but they had not been invited.
“I think the reason people were frustrated leaving the meeting was that the people there contributed collectively 300 hours of their time to this but had no clear understanding how that was going to lead to an actual plan of action,” Thurman said.
Other members of the audience expressed impatience with the county’s 16-to-18-month schedule for identifying transportation projects to boost the local economy. The facilitator, Herb Marlowe, explained that the county first wants to identify economic development areas that would benefit from mass transit projects and other transportation improvements. Marlowe said county planners won’t finish that process until the end of the year.
County Commissioner Mark Sharpe, who was dissuaded from attending the Tuesday meeting by county staff, said Thursday he too wants a quicker schedule for presenting a plan to the public.
“I’m determined to make sure that, by the end of the year, we have a broad map that the citizens of Hillsborough County can support and then we can talk about it,” Sharpe said.
Yet Sharpe and members of the pro-transit coalition say they want a comprehensive plan that includes an array of transportation options, including more bus routes, dedicated toll lanes on highways and some form of light rail.
Mass transit proponents say the area’s snarled highways and limited bus system are holding the economy back. If the county aspires to be a hotbed of high-tech startup companies and a magnet for high-paying jobs, a modern, efficient transit system is essential, they say.
“If you’re an entrepreneur, you don’t have time to sit in traffic for two hours, you need to be working,” Sharpe said. “These people are serious; they want to build companies, they want to grow the economy. They don’t want to sit in traffic.”
One reason some transit supporters want to identify transportation projects quickly is so commissioners could vote to put a tax referendum on the November 2014 ballot. It’s unclear if a tax measure could win the necessary super majority — five votes — to go before voters.
Sharpe and Commissioner Kevin Beckner have said they would support a ballot measure and Commissioner Les Miller also appears supportive based on his public comments. He was out of the state Thursday and could not be reached.
Commissioner Al Higginbotham, who campaigned against a 2010 vote to raise the sales tax by a penny to finance transportation projects, said he would not vote to put a tax before the voters.
“I haven’t seen anything that merits putting it on the ballot,” Higginbotham said. “That is something that is to going to require a consensus from all parties that we move something forward, and I haven’t seen anything that’s moving forward. And I don’t know that I will.”
Commissioners Ken Hagan and Sandy Murman could not be reached for comment.