TAMPA — Hillsborough County is looking at a new way of ranking its transportation needs.
County commissioners want to base priorities for road work and transit expansion based on how much the projects contribute to economic development and job creation, rather than what simply fixes the worst clogs.
More specifically, commissioners plan to give top ranking to road and other transportation projects that ease access to specific areas of the county where they want to try to direct economic investment by businesses. Those areas haven't been identified, though a task force has recommended commissioners concentrate on zones largely along interstates 4 and 75.
County Administrator Mike Merrill said that, historically, most governments have based transportation priorities largely on population projections and where roads are most congested. The new strategy would attempt to use transportation investment to attract businesses, particularly those that employ younger, high-tech workers.
"It's a different framework for how you want to rank transportation," Merrill said. "The idea is, let's take charge of what we really want in terms of population growth."
Commissioners have been talking for months about ways the county can promote economic development beyond offering financial incentives to businesses that open, relocate or expand here. They formed a task force largely of building industry representatives who recommended creating designated economic development areas where roads, storm drains and other infrastructure are installed to accommodate businesses.
But the idea of prioritizing transportation projects based on those zones was crystallized by commissioners for the first time during a workshop Tuesday. Commissioners asked Merrill to reach out to the mayors of Hillsborough's three cities and the heads of the main transit and transportation planning agencies. They want him to see if they're interested in participating in talks aimed at linking transportation plans to economic development.
"My sense is right now everyone's out there doing their own thing and I don't think that's a good thing," Merrill said.
The discussion comes as Commissioner Mark Sharpe is pushing for renewed talks about addressing the county's transportation needs with an eye toward a possible referendum on tax hikes to pay for them in 2014. While he said he applauds viewing transportation needs through an economic development lens, he expressed concern that this new concept will delay action on needs that have been identified through years of study.
"There's a point at which we need to start doing," he said.