If you live in Hillsborough, you have a shot over the next three months or so to weigh in on how county leaders can do better on transit via the Go Hillsborough initiative.
We're not just talking about the buses, either. We're talking about roads, bike paths, pedestrian walkways and even (gasp!) light rail, if that's what you want to talk about.
Tonight marks the first of a whopping 36 meetings in which county leaders, Hillsborough Area Regional Transit and city leaders from Tampa, Temple Terrace and Plant City hope to glean information from the public on how to do transit better.
"The point of the meetings right now is basically listening to folks, listening to their comments and their opinions, compiling everything and understanding what their needs are," said Sandra Morrison, a spokeswoman for HART. "So basically a lot of listening and receiving people's comments on the situation and what they need to make their lives better."
That could be too many potholes on Bruce B. Downs, or it could be that there aren't enough covered bus shelters. Or that soul-crushing feeling you get when you're trying to merge onto I-275 South from the eastern downtown on-ramp any time between 2 and 7 p.m. on a weekday and you're stuck there for what feels like hours and all you want is to be at home with your dog.
Even though an effort to fund a transportation overhaul proposal with a slight sales tax increase failed in the county in 2010, transit advocates are hoping for the best.
"The reality is, is that we have a problem with our transportation system," said Kevin Thurman, executive director of Connect Tampa Bay, a group that supports boosting public transit options, including rail. "It's deficient in a number of ways and that is the thing that we have to have the community come together and make a decision about where we want to go. And here's the reality: making a decision to do nothing is a decision."
At the end of the 36 meetings, the county hopes to have a laundry list of priorities it can then tackle.
"The purpose of these meetings is to lay the groundwork for creating a process in which to determine the needs and wants of citizens with regards to transportation infrastructure," said County Commissioner Stacy White, who represents parts of eastern Hillsborough, in an email. "It is important to talk about transit in Hillsborough County because it is one of the ways in which our traffic gridlock problem might be solved."
While a transit referendum like the one that failed in Hillsborough in 2010 (or, more recently in Pinellas last year) is by no means imminent, the information gathered at these meetings could lay the groundwork for a referendum in the future, Morrison said, but that's not their overt intent.
"The right now main thing that they're trying to do is listen to folks and receive their opinions," Morrison said.
After the meetings — but probably not before then — they'll talk about funding.
"We're not even talking about funding sources yet." said Liana Lopez, a spokeswoman for Hillsborough County. "We want to be as open and grassroots as possible to have that honest, open dialogue (about transportation)."
Thurman said he thinks once the county quantifies its transit needs, revenue will ultimately be a big part of the discussion.
"The fact that we don't have the money to maintain the roads that we built as-is means that we really are going to be looking at more revenue." he said.
White, meanwhile, said he would oppose rail as well as a ballot initiative to fund transit, but he might be open to expanding bus-rapid transit.
"I have been a vocal opponent of rail," he said. "I might be willing to support some BRT as part of an appropriate comprehensive transportation package because BRT does not come with the front-loaded infrastructure costs of rail."
Tonight's meeting goes from 6-8 p.m. at Mt. Olive A.M.E. Church in Tampa.
Find a full list of scheduled meetings here.