TAMPA — An international consulting firm with a record of success in shepherding transportation tax referendums will try to do the same thing for Hillsborough County.
The county will pay the New York-based engineering firm Parsons Brinckerhoff nearly $900,000 to develop a comprehensive transportation plan that will be delivered to city and county leaders in March.
More than half the money will be spent trying to pull in as many county residents as possible for conversations about what the final plan should look like.
“We want to go out there and listen, then verify what we heard,” said George Walton, executive vice president at the firm’s Tampa office.
Walton, speaking Tuesday to the county’s transportation policy leadership group, outlined a public outreach effort that will include eight community and two regional meetings along with speaking engagements by county leaders. Walton said the firm will use other forms of communication, including telephone meetings and social media.
County Administrator Mike Merrill has already been meeting with business groups and community service organizations to discuss the policy group’s preliminary plans. These include road, bridge and trail projects; a doubling of the HART bus system; and a light rail line from Westshore to downtown Tampa.
Voters will be asked to approve a 1 cent sales tax increase in 2016 for the work to go forward.
Merrill estimated he’s made 15 speaking appearances, “but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There are 200 more that need to be done.”
Merrill said once he explains the county’s finances, and why more money is not available for needed transportation improvements, listeners have been more willing to back a comprehensive plan that would likely include a tax increase.
“There truly is a will out there to do something that will take care of our transportation needs,” he said.
County leaders have made public engagement a priority. A number of county leaders blame the failure of the 2010 transportation tax referendum on a lack of communication with residents.
“This is a 180-degree sea change from where we were in 2010,” said commission Chairman Mark Sharpe. “You picked the best, and if we’re going to communicate successfully, we’ve to have the best.”
Parsons Brinckerhoff was hired at the insistence of county commissioners, who wanted a consultant with transportation experience to lead the county’s outreach effort. The firm has worked on transportation referendums in Seattle, Los Angeles, Denver and statewide in South Carolina and Louisiana.
Most of those plans passed the first time they went on the ballot, Walton said.
Commissioners had previously approved $500,000 in the fiscal 2015 budget for transportation planning. That leaves $400,000 the county will have to come up with to pay the company.
Merrill said the bulk of the difference will come from grant money already awarded to the county’s Metropolitan Planning Organization, Hillsborough’s transportation planning agency. Hillsborough’s three cities will also be asked to contribute, Merrill said.
Nine companies were considered for the job. The group was narrowed to four finalists before Parsons Brinckerhoff was selected. The county followed guidelines in Florida’s Consultants Competitive Negotiations Act in choosing the company.
Tampa tea party founder Sharon Calvert took issue with the hiring process, saying the company was awarded what amounts to a no-bid contract through negotiations held behind closed doors. Calvert, who opposes a transportation tax referendum, said the county purposely hid the selection process to keep opposition groups in the dark.
“Obviously this was behind the scenes,” Calvert said. “I’ve been trying to get these questions answered for months.”
Kevin Thurman, executive director of the pro-transit group Connect Tampa Bay, said he was pleased with the hiring of Parsons Brinckerhoff. Thurman’s group has pushed for a faster, specific transportation plan that voters could support.
“What is important about today is there is very clear, stepped process,” Thurman said. “This thing is coming and it’s coming soon, and they hired a top-notch firm that everybody seems happy with.”
Walton said his group will start analyzing preliminary planning and project development done by the policy leadership group, the Metropolitan Planning Organization and the HART transit agency.
The company will give the policy group a progress report in December.
“We want to understand what’s going on out there ... from the community’s perspective,” Walton said. “We don’t want to have a plan that just sits on a shelf.”