TAMPA — Several members of a Hillsborough County transportation policy group said Wednesday the county’s bus agency, HART, should be enlarged and charged with financing and building road, rail and other projects to spur economic growth.
The subject came up after County Administrator Mike Merrill told the group — made up of county commissioners, mayors of the county’s three cities and the chairman of the HART board — they would soon need to pick an agency to finance and start transportation projects the policy-makers approve this year.
Merrill compared it to the handoff between a quarterback and a running back, or between a product designer and the manufacturer.
“I would suggest it’s especially critical for this group to be thinking about the hand off,” Merrill said, “so that all of the great work that’s being done here — to develop the vision, pick the projects, talk about the funding — is only as good as who’s going to implement it; who’s going to make this thing real; who’s going to be accountable for it.”
County Commissioner Kevin Beckner said he felt strongly that HART was the only agency that made sense. HART deals exclusively with transportation, Beckner said, and its governing board includes county commissioners and elected officials from Tampa and Temple Terrace. HART also has the power to collect property tax and receives federal grants.
“I don’t think it’s sufficient in its current structure … but for me that’s a starting point,” Beckner said.
He suggested the HART board could be enlarged to include representatives from the county Metropolitan Planning Agency, the Florida Department of Transportation and Plant City, which do not have a seat on the transit agency’s board.
County Commissioners Sandy Murman and Mark Sharpe agreed, saying it would take too long to create a new agency with taxing powers.
Other members of the policy group, while stopping short of endorsing HART as the coordinating agency, said they do not want to create a new layer of bureaucracy. There was also general agreement that the agency should include elected officials so its operations are transparent under the state’s sunshine laws.
“I think everything starts with transparency and assuring the public we have an organization equipped to handle the monumental transportation issues in this county,” said County Commissioner Ken Hagan.
The new HART board chairman, Tampa City Councilman Mike Suarez, said the policy group needed more direction on what the proposed agency would do. HART’s main role, Suarez said, is “delivering folks from point A to point B,” not economic development.
“I think it’s too big to put under one roof,” Suarez said. “I think we need more clear direction from the leaders of the city government and the county government about what they want to implement.”
Regarding HART’s ability to get federal grants, Suarez said those dollars are “to run a bus system, not for economic development.”
Herb Marlowe, the policy group’s facilitator, said naming a coordinating agency is something that would take several more meetings, and the members agreed.
The policy group was created by the county commission in March and started meeting last summer, listening to advice from the public, business leaders and other government agencies about what transportation improvements are needed to lure high-paying jobs.
On Wednesday, County engineer Mike Williams showed members the first group of recommended transportation projects, all in the mostly industrial area east of Tampa. The area surrounds the Florida State Fairgrounds, Orient Road and Interstates 4 and 75.
The proposed projects included the following:
Adding two lanes to Hillsborough Avenue from 50th Street to Orient Road 60
Green bike lanes on 40th Street from Hillsborough Avenue to State Road 60.
Widening Falkenburg Road to four lanes from State Road 574 to U.S. 92, and to six lanes from Martin Luther King Boulevard to Palm River.
A roadway extension and bridge on Hanna/Sligh Avenue from U.S. 301 to Eureka Springs.
Widening Harney Road to four lanes from Martin Luther King Boulevard to U.S. 301.
Widening Sligh Avenue to four lanes with bike lanes from 56th Street to U.S. 301.
The list also includes intersection improvements and multi-use trails.
No decision was made on the list at Wednesday’s meeting. The next batch of improvements, to be presented to the policy group next month, takes in Tampa, Brandon and MacDill Air Force Base.