BROOKSVILLE — When it comes right down to it, Hernando County and Citrus County have a lot in common.
The population sizes and makeups are similar. Each community's county commission is pushing for the construction of the final phase of the Suncoast Parkway through Citrus. Each wants to be in a favorable position to compete for important state road project funds.
Soon, elected officials from Hernando, Citrus and the cities of Brooksville, Crystal River and Inverness could be sitting at the table together as a combined Metropolitan Planning Organization discussing transportation projects important to the region.
Earlier this week, the Hernando MPO met in a workshop to hear more about the possible merger and to discuss details of how it all might work.
While Hernando County has had an MPO since 1992, Citrus has not because there was no area of population there that was considered an "urbanized area.''
That changed with the 2010 census, and an area stretching north from Homosassa Springs through Beverly Hills and Citrus Springs, then down U.S. 41 to Inverness, now has been designated as urbanized. In response, Citrus officials started planning two years ago to form their own MPO.
Late last year, however, the county was informed by the Florida Department of Transportation that there was no interest in adding more MPOs, and Citrus officials were asked to join forces with an adjacent county. They chose Hernando.
"People can't go it alone. Organizations can't go it alone in this financial climate,'' Lee Royal of the DOT told the Hernando MPO.
State transportation dollars, she noted, are going toward regional priorities.
"You have the opportunity to develop those big regional projects,'' Royal said.
Joining forces would "make sense and be a benefit to both of our counties,'' said Len Tria, chairman of the MPO's citizens advisory committee.
With discussions now focusing on regions rather than individual counties, he said, "that's where the future lies.''
He quickly added: "Of course, the devil is in the details.''
And it is the details of what a merged MPO might look like that are the dilemma for Hernando and Citrus transportation planners and for Bob Clifford, executive director of the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority.
"This is really all pretty new to them,'' Clifford said of the Citrus planners. "They have a lot of questions about how does this all work.''
While the first steps include redrawing boundaries and figuring out who will sit on the board, it is the operation of the MPO — the staffing and the budget — that must be figured out later, Clifford said, and "you don't become a joint MPO until we do all those other things.''
He said Citrus officials, none of whom attended this week's meeting, are looking forward to partnering with Hernando.
"They're excited to be part of the overall effort,'' he said. "We're just trying to understand how to work through the details.''
Currently, the Hernando MPO has six members — the five sitting county commissioners and Brooksville Mayor Lara Bradburn.
The proposed composition of the two-county MPO would have 11 members, including the current six from Hernando. That proposal would have three Citrus County commissioners and one representative each from Crystal River and Inverness.
Hernando would have the majority on the board because it has more population, explained Dennis Dix, Hernando's transportation coordinator.
Bradburn suggested that cutting the number of members and focusing on elected officials who have a passion for transportation issues might make the body more efficient. MPO member Dave Russell said that made sense to him.
He said he has served on large committees before, and "issues do become more convoluted and less focused'' when there are too many people at the table.
County staffers said they would take a look at other options for the makeup of the board, but Dix noted "we are no longer in a vacuum,'' and Citrus officials will need to be consulted.
MPO member Nick Nicholson said he was not in favor of reducing the number of members. As a member of the Florida Building Commission, which has 25 members, he said there has never been a problem and each member brings a certain expertise to the table.
Bradburn said the Hernando group should go into the effort with eyes open to the realities of the situation. With the recent announcement that the Crystal River nuclear power plant will be mothballed, "that puts Citrus County in a financial fix in the coming years,'' she said.
Its need for state money will only get more significant, while Hernando has "planned well for our future," she said.
"Whatever we do (with the MPO merger)," she said, "has got to be fair and equitable.''
Clifford said he will meet next week with staffers from all of the jurisdictions in the two counties and that the Citrus County Transportation Planning Organization, which operates as a local MPO, willl have a workshop next month similar to the one in Hernando this week to share more information about the merger process.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1434.