TAMPA - Elected officials have had plenty to say in recent months about Hillsborough County's transportation challenges. On Tuesday night, everyday residents will get their turn to talk about the best ways to fix the problems - and how to pay for the solutions.
County residents who want to speak at the 6 p.m. meeting at the County Center in downtown Tampa will have to sign up on a first-come, first-served basis. Unlike other county public hearings, this meeting will be led by a facilitator who will guide the discussion by posing questions and asking speakers to address those queries.
The public discussion is being held in conjunction with separate meetings of a county transportation policy group made up of the county commission, the mayors of Hillsborough's three cities and the head of the HART bus system.
Eric Johnson, head of strategic planning for the county, said the plan is to alternate meetings of the policy group with public hearings once a month.
"The idea is to let those 11 policymakers have their discussions without interruption, and at the same time let anyone who's interested in the discussion be allowed to follow it and participate," Johnson said.
The county commission created the policy group in March at the prodding of pro-transit groups. The idea was to rekindle a debate that seemed dead after voters rejected a 2010 referendum to raise the sales tax by a penny to fund a host of transportation projects.
Supporters of that referendum, including some business leaders, say it was ill-timed and lacked a cohesive, understandable plan that citizens could get behind. The effort also was undermined by the inclusion of an expensive light-rail system fiercely opposed by tea party groups and by many residents in unincorporated areas who said they would never ride it.
Pro-transit groups are not abandoning light rail, but they say it might be more palatable if the route is short, say from Tampa International Airport to the West Shore Business District. The rail route specified in the 2010 referendum ran from downtown to the University of South Florida.
Transportation improvements should include an array of options, including more and speedier bus routes and dedicated toll lanes, supporters say.
"We want transportation options and we want it countywide and multi-modal," said Kevin Thurman, director of the pro-transit group Connect Tampa Bay. "Our conclusion is that at the end of multiple meetings and a lot of efforts from elected leaders, we can't end up with something that's not comprehensive."
The transportation policy group last met on July 23 and invited six business leaders, all of whom said a modern, efficient mass transit system is vital if the county wants to attract highly skilled workers and industries with high-paying jobs.
Thurman said members of his coalition met the day after the policy group did and signed up 75 people to attend the Tuesday night meeting. The coalition includes the Sierra Club, the Florida Consumer Action Network and some building and transportation unions.
Also watching the process closely is Sharon Calvert, founder of the Tampa Tea Party and a key opponent of the 2010 referendum. Calvert said she is concerned the facilitator was hired to push the process toward some predetermined goals, such as a light-rail system.
"There's a lot of confusion on what the goal is coming out of this," she said.
Johnson, the county's strategic planner, said the end result of the meetings depends largely on what the policy group hears from the public and what decisions policy group members reach among themselves.
If the group has a specific goal, Johnson said, it is to identify areas of the county that look ripe for economic development and design a transportation system that serves those areas.
"We want to determine what we can do in terms of transportation to make those areas more attractive in creating jobs," Johnson said. "We're not looking at just transportation within an area, but between areas."
Calvert also questioned how business leaders who attended the policy group meeting were chosen.
The executives told the transportation group the county needs to start working on mass transit options now, even if it takes a tax increase to finance them. Most of the executives spoke in favor of light rail, which the tea party vehemently opposes.
Calvert pointed out that the business leaders who attended the meeting were chosen by Rick Homans, president and CEO of the Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corp. Homans supports a light-rail system for Hillsborough.
"Every single one (of the business leaders) was heavily tied to the referendum in 2010," Calvert said. "When you start out like that, it's not good for the credibility of what you're doing."
Homans said he chose the six executives because they are among the leading voices for the county's business community. That they would all support investments in transportation should have surprised no one, Homans said.
"I don't think too many people question that there is a strong linkage between improved transportation and improved economic growth," Homans said. "It's what that mix of transportation options is and how you pay for it - that's when the conversation gets a little dicier, and those conversations are yet to come."
Future public meetings might be held in areas outside downtown Tampa and could be streamed live on the county's Website. HTV, the county's cable television network, will cover both the policy group and public transportation meetings.
"What I don't want," Johnson said, "is for us to get to the end of this process and have any constituency in the county say, 'We didn't know what was going on,' or 'You didn't give us any way to participate.'?"