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HART to wind down rail effort

The Tampa Tribune
Published:   |   Updated: March 20, 2013 at 12:44 PM
TAMPA -

The county's mass transit board decided enough money and time has been spent planning for rail lines that are at best years in the future and voters clearly didn't want to pay for.

The Hillsborough Area Rapid Transit board voted Monday to wind down planning and exploration of possible routes for light rail and focus on the agency's core of bus service.

Hillsborough County voters were clear last year when they scuttled a sales tax referendum for light rail. Then Gov. Rick Scott turned off the federal cash spigot by rejecting $2.4 billion for high-speed rail.

HART has spent about $1.5 million studying alternative transportation routes, mainly for rail lines. The studies are necessary to pursue federal money for light rail, but any local money to match federal funds disappeared with the referendum's rejection.

"For us to proceed doesn't make sense," said Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe, a HART board member.

Monday's decision could save about $300,000 budgeted for the studies but not spent, he said.

The board, at the suggestion of Commissioner Kevin Beckner, stopped short of simply halting the studies. The agency staff will recommend at next month's meeting how to wind down the studies and salvage data harvested from the work.

"I'm not seeing the wisdom of throwing out the work we have done," Beckner said.

Shifting attention from light rail will let HART focus on improving its bus service, said county Commissioner Sandy Murman, a HART member.

"Let's use our resources to help people in the community right now," she said.

The decision does not mean light rail is finished, Sharpe said after the meeting.

"We have to prioritize and focus on the basics," he said.

Board members also were told they may never know how changes worked their way into a contract for former CEO David Armijo who was fired April 18.

The contract issue arose at the April 18 meeting. Board members Alison Hewitt and Beckner said they discovered when they reviewed materials beforehand that there had been changes to the executive's contract.

The board asked general counsel Mary Ann Stiles to track changes in Armijo's employment contract. She told board members Monday it may be impossible to unearth how all the alternations occurred.

Many of the changes were pulled directly from a former director's contract, including using "her" in reference to the female director, Stiles said.

There did not appear to be an intent to hide changes or fool board members, she said, though it was likely not every board member reviewed the pact. One change worked against Armijo by cutting his severance pay from a year's salary to 180 days.

Board members were ready to end the issue.

"I don't know if we need to continue to wring our hands over this," said member David Mechanik.

njohnson@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7731

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