Hillsborough County transit activists demand "robust" public engagement process

Earlier this year, activists with Connect Tampa Bay were catalysts in persuading the Hillsborough County Commission to form a new policy group to study transportation options — the first agency of its kind since county voters rejected a light-rail tax referendum in November of 2010. But Connect Tampa Bay and its pro-public transit allies hope the new group isn't just another excuse for county officials to delay improving Hillsborough's transit situation.

The Transportation Leadership Group's first public meeting ended in frustration for many because the key decision makers were AWOL. A few days after the meeting, public transit activists spoke to members of the media about what they want out of the nascent agency going forward.

"We want to make sure that the people we invited to come (to the meetings) — that there is a schedule, that there is a process — that they’re going to be included in that process and that there'll be meetings like that all over the county," said the Sierra Club's Phil Compton, who spoke in front of the County Center on Friday morning.

The activists are demanding that a decision schedule be posted so the public understands the process that will lead to a final plan. They also want the leadership group to set a schedule for public meetings and consider moving them to locations throughout the county to maximize outreach and input.

"We were sort of strung along on Tuesday night," said Jim Shirk, chairman of the Hillsborough County Pedestrian Advisory Council. He was referring to the exclusion of the County Commission, the mayors of Tampa, Plant City and Temple Terrace, and HART board chair Fran Davin, all of whom allegedly were told to stay home so the public could have their say. "There was a lot of 'touchy-feely,' and not a lot of hard decisions moving forward or even presenting a timeline that get us moving forward."

"When folks showed up on Tuesday night, they were hoping for something a bit more substantive," said Tim Heberlein with the Florida Consumer Action Network. "They felt that was a lot of rehashing that we've been though the last 20 years. It's important to have some sort of benchmarks and some sort of timelines for us to get these things accomplished so were not sitting here 20 years later."

This criticism shows that the Transportation Leadership Group's journey will not be easy as its members try to accomplish their goals. At the group's previous meeting, Tea Party activists like Sharon Calvert and HART board member Karen Jaroch were critical about the fact that all of the local CEOs invited to participate spoke enthusiastically about the need for a light-rail system.

Ultimately, the seven county commissioners on the board will determine what happens next.

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