BROOKSVILLE — The elected officials of Hernando and Citrus counties took a major step forward Wednesday in planning and funding future transportation projects in the northern portion of Tampa Bay.
Members of the Hernando County Metropolitan Planning Organization and the Citrus County Transportation Planning Organization, comprised of county commissioners and city council members in the region, overcame a disagreement about representation.
As Citrus prepares to merge into the Hernando MPO, the two counties had disagreed about how large the board should be and who should be a member. On the table were proposals to have 11 members or seven members.
Prepared for a spirited discussion, officials arranged for a facilitator to run the workshop — Hal Beardall of the Florida State University Consensus Center.
Beardall had little to facilitate, however, after Hernando MPO Chairman Wayne Dukes immediately suggested a compromise number of nine.
Hernando MPO member Dave Russell jumped in to agree, noting that nine members would allow both Inverness and Crystal River to have representation on the merged MPO.
"I think it's a wonderful number,'' said Paula Wheeler, a member of the Crystal River City Council.
Brooksville Mayor Lara Bradburn said the new organization must move forward with improvements such as the extension of the Suncoast Parkway, regional transit plans and the expansion of a trail network.
"The only way that we can do that,'' Bradburn said, "is if everyone has a seat at the table.
Based on the 2010 census, Citrus County for the first time has an area characterized as urban, and state transportation officials told Citrus it needed to merge with an existing MPO. Citrus chose Hernando.
While the counties have been talking about the merger individually for months, Wednesday was the first time they met together. The merger opens up transportation funding programs for Citrus that Hernando has taken advantage of for years.
The action drew praise from state DOT officials and SunTrust Bank executive Jim Kimbrough, who attended the meeting. Regionalizing planning, Kimbrough said, helps communities build roads faster, attract economic development and create jobs.
"Access means economic opportunity,'' he said.