Hillsborough County one step closer to putting transit tax on 2016 ballot

Saying that they are looking to create a transportation plan that doesn't reflect politics but a sound policy, Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill today received unanimous approval from the TED (Transportation Economic Development) Policy Leadership Group to begin public outreach to the community over the next two months. The outreach program will seek to figure out what projects and funding sources are needed before preparing a referendum to go before the public in 2016.

"This is a transformational moment in Hillsborough County," Merrill intoned before the crowd.

TED consultant Herb Marlowe said the goal of the outreach, which will include town hall meetings, tele-town hall meetings, appearances before business groups and using social media, is to "listen to the public to understand what they see as a need," and to "understand their needs, aspirations and values of community with respect to transportation." He said that those conversation points will include safety, protecting current assets, reducing commute times, connecting people to jobs and being equitable.

But facilitators of the public meetings won't literally be going in with blank slates. Last month the TED group presented a list of projects to the media that is roughly 50/50 in terms of road vs. transit projects. That prompted Commissioner Al Higginbotham to question a new report produced by the consultant AECOM. "What is this?" he questioned. "A summary? A conclusion?" Merrill called it an assessment or "health check" on how the community stacks up in terms of obtaining federal grants in parts of the county where there are transit needs.

A major issue that could have seriously derailed whatever momentum the county and city of Tampa are feeling about the referendum has been on the issue of governance, after Merrill announced in late May that the TED group should essentially take over the current HART board and make that the central transit agency in control as the referendum moves forward.

But Merrill received serious pushback from members of the current HART board (and from some outspoken members of the public), and immediately took that issue off the table early on in his presentation today, saying that "any talk of governance should wait until we have a transportation plan." (Current plans are for HART officials to sit down with Hillsborough County administrators to discuss how such a transition would occur).

But while Merrill and Marlowe were emphasizing the contours of the "listening tour," Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn cut to the chase, asking at what point would the group be ready to propose the specifics of a plan to package for a referendum to go before the voters?

"Put me in coach," Buckhorn joked. "Is it anticipated at the end of this period of October that the board would make a decision as to whether or not it goes on the ballot in two years and then we start the discussion?"

Merrill said wasn't part of his game plan. "The timing has to come from you all," he said looking at all of the TED board members. "I did not come here with a pre-determined date."

Although there are 27 months until such a one-cent transit sales tax would come before the voters (as was the case in 2010), Commissioner Victor Crist speculated that might not be enough time to sell the public, adding ominously that "I'm afraid in our haste we're going to put ourselves back 10 years."
But referencing the AECOM report, County Commissioner Mark Sharpe disagreed, saying that there have been nine major transportation studies over the past 21 years in Hillsborough. "I don't think we've rushed. I think we've been a little slow."

In deciding not to reconvene until November after taking public comment for two months, the Policy Leadership Group will also be waiting to see what happens with the Greenlight Pinellas initiative that will be decided on November 4. That's Pinellas' hugely important one-cent transit tax that could hurt Hillsborough's cause if it fails at the polls. On Monday night, the Republican Executive Committee of Pinellas County voted to oppose the measure.

The Policy Leadership Group also voted to support the county hiring a transportation expert to help guide them in preparing how to go about the process of bringing a referendum to the public.

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