Parsons Brinckerhoff getting paid big to help prepare Hillsborough transit plan

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Two weeks from tonight, Pinellas County voters will decide whether to approve a one-cent transit tax to help pay for a major new transportation project called Greenlight Pinellas. Meanwhile, today in Hillsborough County, preparations to place a similar measure intended for the November 2016 ballot  were jump-started, with an ambitious goal of being ready to unveil a specific plan to the community in less than six months.

The Hillsborough County Policy Leadership Group has been working for over a year and a half to produce a new and improved transit system for the county. At their last meeting in August, the group, consisting of the Board of County Commissioners and the mayors of Tampa, Temple Terrace and Plant City, approved hiring the global consulting firm Parsons Brinckerhoff for $500,000, through which the agency can do public outreach on a transit plan. Today the Leadership Group was informed by County Administrator Mike Merrill that an additional $400,000 will be needed to pay Parsons for engineering studies. 

"There truly is a will to do something out there that will take care of our transportation needs," County Administrator Mike Merrill told the group. He said that's the consensus he's gathered in recent weeks after meeting up with neighborhood groups, civic associations and business officials.

Merrill then introduced George Walton with Parsons Brinckerhoff, which has worked on a slew of transportation projects around the country for decades. They won the bid for the project over three other companies after being part of an original group of nine transportation consultants pre-selected under a state statute called the Consultants’ Competitive Negotiation Act (CCNA).

There was no vote today, as the $500,000 approved on August 12 comes of the FY2015 budget allocated for transportation planning. Merrill says the remaining $400,000 will probably come from a variety of sources, including the Hillsborough MPO, which earlier this month was given a $600,000 grant from the state Dept. of Transportation, and from HART, which has money for planning. There may be a request for funds to come from Tampa, Plant City and Temple Terrace as well. 

"We want to stimulate the interest, we want to have the conversation, we want to understand what is relevant," said Walton, adding that Parsons will be setting up and holding meetings and telephone town hall conversations to gauge the wants and needs of the public. 

There has already been grumbling about the effort amongst some observers in the county who note how much money is already earmarked for transportation in the annual budget. But Merrill said that one alternative source of funds, the 1996 Community Investment Tax, is not viable. "Half of that has been spent on transportation," he said of the tax that will expire in 2026. "CIT was also for schools, public safety, libraries. It was never designed to be a transportation funding source."

County Commissioners were relatively acquiescent, noting how everything about this process felt much different than 2010, when the measure ended up losing by 16 percentage points. Commissioner Les Miller was effusive in his praise for Merrill after observing a recent presentation the County Administrator gave in Progress Village. 

Parsons Brinckerhoff has previously contributed $50,000 to Yes on Greenlight, the political action committee formed to advocate for the passage of Greenlight Pinellas. That has led critics like Dr. David McKalip to accuse Greenlight of employing "corporate cronyism," alleging that this will give them a leg up on getting contracts for the development of the project if it passes next month.

"I think this plan that were rolling out today is pretty comprehensive," Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn told CL after the meeting. "it’s a much different environment than 2010."

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