No final answers about future of HART board after three-hour meeting

Less than two weeks after the Transportation for Economic Development group consisting of the Hillsborough County Commission and the mayors of Tampa, Temple Terrace and Plant City voted to take control of HART, the existing HART board brought County Administrator Mike Merrill before them Monday afternoon to discuss the current state of play.

The meeting took over three hours and was devoid of air-conditioning, adding an edge to an already contentious subject. Tampa City Councilman and HART Chair Mike Suarez and Hillsborough Commissioner Mark Sharpe clashed at one point.

"We make the decision how we're going to look ," Suarez declared during the meeting. "The new HART (board) is going to be decided by this HART." Moments later Sharpe retaliated, saying that he believed in a more "robust" transit agency, and "if you don't like it, I don't care."

The current HART board has several members of the public on its board, selected to represent the city of Tampa, Hillsborough County and Governor Rick Scott, respectively. Two of those community members, Karen Jaroch and Anne Madden, said they disagreed with the notion that a board of all elected officials would be more beneficial. Madden said she felt that there was a substantially different interaction with elected officials as opposed to community members in representing the public on such an agency, and she expressed concerns about how such voices could be diluted under the proposed setup. 

Another appointee, John Melendez, didn't tip his hand but stood behind the arguments laid out by Suarez, at one point calling him "my chairman." He said if it comes to a point in the future where the board would have to vote to change its charter, he would definitely have more questions. 

HART attorney David Smith said that the only constraint that a new board would have to contend with legally is that they needed to maintain the two appointees selected by the governor's office at all times. He said he wasn't clear if city of Tampa voters would have to approve a change on how it selects its representatives. 

Suarez has maintained that such a change would need to go before voters, because currently HART is charged with transit issues like bus (and potentially rail), whereas the county is dedicated to the building and funding of roads only. 

Although it's clear that Merrill appears to be quite confident that having the Transportation for Economic Development group lead a new HART, he backed away at times from any ownership of the idea, saying at one point "that's where the Leadership group wants to go." He was also chastised by HART board member Fran Davin for comparing such a change to what happened over the past year with the Homeless Coalition of Hillsborough County, which she said was not appropriate. "They weren't a taxing authority and they didn't have a record like we did," she said. That seemed to be a common theme from HART interim CEO Katharine Eagan on down: that the agency has done a solid job under trying circumstances.

There was also much talk about how ultimately there will be another tax referendum on the 2016 ballot to fund transportation in the County, the first crack at that plan since the 2010 transit tax went down badly.  Scenarios were thrown out about how much a half-cent vs. a full cent would bring in to the county coffers for transportation. Merrill said that the county currently has over $127 million in road improvement projects that have not been acted upon since the Great Recession hit six years ago, "because we couldn't pay for it." He emphasized that not everyone in the county wants transit, mentioning that they want better sidewalks, bike trails and better traffic flows. 

But he dismissed rumors that the plan would be a 20:1 split of money spent on roads vs. mass transit, saying it would likely be around 50/50. 

The Transportation for Economic Development Group is scheduled to meet again later this month. Merrill said there was really "no roadmap" moving forward, since the vote earlier by the group was actually non-binding. "We needed to hear back from HART," he said. 

He did, but the future doesn't look too clear about how it will be governed.

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