TAMPA — After nearly nine months discussing what Hillsborough County’s future transportation system should look like, county leaders are now ready to hear from the people.
On Wednesday, a transportation policy group that includes county commissioners and the mayors of Hillsborough’s three cities gave the go-ahead for a massive public engagement campaign. The goal is to learn what transportation improvements residents want and if they’re willing to tax themselves to pay for them.
The board members were united in their insistence that the talking and listening should be thorough and wide-ranging. Some hearkened to 2010, when voters rejected a 1-cent sales tax increase for transportation projects, saying it failed precisely because county leaders did a bad job of communicating how the tax would relieve traffic congestion and offer more transportation options.
“I want to see this groundwork, this foundation there, so we can take something solid to the public to make decisions,” said County Commissioner Al Higginbotham, who opposed the sales tax increase in 2010.
The public engagement campaign will come in two stages. Stage 1 will run from April through June and include a robo-call survey with three to five questions, plus field interviews and questionnaires targeted to special-interest groups, such as the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce.
Building on the information gleaned from the first stage, the board and county managers will develop a detailed proposal for public comment in stage 2. That proposal will outline how money will be spent and what group will be responsible for collecting and spending it.
Stage 2 is scheduled for August and September and will include focus groups, town hall meetings and perhaps a scientific survey. The county and cities will hire a private company to craft the questions and develop a strategy to engage as many residents as possible in the discussion.
Several board members emphasized that the company chosen to handle the campaign should be free from bias.
“This is a major, major issue that we’re dealing with,” said Commissioner Kevin Beckner, “so spending a few thousand dollars, or whatever it takes, to get what we’re looking for is going to be critical to me, and I’m willing to support those allocations.”
Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said the group should get the best firm available, even if it means going outside the county or state.
“I would encourage you to use people who do this for a living, not amateurs, not (public relations) firms, not people who make T-shirts,” Buckhorn said. “This information is going to be important because as we head down this path we’re going to want to know what people are thinking and to frame the discussion moving forward. I strongly urge you even if it involves spending some money.”
During his Tuesday State of the City speech, Buckhorn called for another countywide referendum on a sales tax to support transportation. Buckhorn wants the referendum to be held in March 2015 in conjunction with the Tampa city election.
The county commission could set a March election with a simple majority vote. However, when The Tampa Tribune polled commissioners in late January, five said March might be too early to hold a vote.
One group county officials are counting on for support in the public engagement effort is the chamber of commerce.
The chamber, which supported the sales tax increase in 2010, has formed its own transportation policy group that will meet Friday.
Still to be decided by the policy group is what kind of governing body will oversee the construction projects envisioned should a tax pass. Several commissioners favor revamping the board of the HART transit system and putting it in charge of countywide transportation improvements.
But HART board Chairman Mike Suarez told the group Wednesday that the transit agency will need a massive infusion of money if it is to oversee transportation projects linked to economic development.
“You can’t have steak on a peanut butter and jelly budget,” Suarez said.
The first survey will start in late April or early May, and the results will be ready for board members at their next meeting May 28, said county administrator Mike Merrill.