TAMPA — Hillsborough commissioners voted unanimously Wednesday to begin discussions with the county's three mayors and other government leaders about future transportation needs.
"I want to move forward," said County Commissioner Mark Sharpe, who has been urging fellow board members to move in that direction.
The vote specifically directs county administrator Mike Merrill to schedule and convene a transportation summit involving commissioners, the mayors of Tampa, Plant City and Temple Terrace, as well as the chairman of Hillsborough Area Regional Transit, the county's main transit agency.
They will be urged to discuss what the county's priorities should be to improve transportation systems that get ranked poorly when compared to other metropolitan areas. Commissioners have specifically said they want to emphasize transportation projects that spur economic development and create jobs.
Ideally, officials hope to convene the transportation summit within six weeks.
"There is a correlation between transportation and economic development," commission chairman Ken Hagan said.
The vote came as dozens of advocates for both addressing transportation and creating other modes of transit urged commissioners to begin taking action and set deadlines.
While the areas to be targeted for transportation haven't been identified, a task force has recommended commissioners concentrate on zones largely along Interstates 4 and 75.
With Pinellas County laying the groundwork to ask voters whether they support raising the sales tax there to help pay for transit, transportation advocates say Hillsborough commissioners needed to start a similar dialogue.
"I've lived here for 36 years," Phil Compton, a field organizer for the regional office of Sierra Club Florida said earlier this week. "I think Tampa Bay is the best place to live, with this one glaring deficiency.
"We have the fewest choices in regards to transportation of any place in America."
Compton and his organization joined with other groups, including the recently formed Connect Tampa Bay, to forge a grass roots coalition advocating a community dialogue about addressing regional congestion.
Participants in the group emphasized the need to explore an array of options to get people from one place to another, including spending on rail, expanding bus service, building bike lanes and adding roads.
Mostly, they said, they want commissioners to talk about the topic and set a deadline for coming up with either solutions or a plan to take a question to voters.
County voters easily rejected a proposal two years ago to raise the sales tax by a penny to build a light rail line, expand bus service and build roads.
The advocates said the need to address the problem of growing needs and limited tax dollars was becoming more urgent.
"We need to build something that fits Hillsborough County," said Kevin Thurman, executive director of Connect Tampa Bay. "In order to do that we need to ask the people what they want first."
His organization has begun organizing house parties around the county to do just that.
Sharpe had initially scheduled a discussion for today on restarting an effort to address transportation that could lead to a referendum question in 2014. That's when Pinellas County is tentatively scheduled to have its vote.
But Sharpe met resistance when he broached the topic at a workshop two weeks ago. Other board members agreed transportation is a priority, but sought a more measured approach.
They tasked Merrill with reaching out to the mayors of Hillsborough County's three cities, as well as transit and planning agency leaders, to seek their participation. County commissioners expressed a desire to rank transportation priorities based on whether they promote economic development.
Merrill has held those conversations and said making transportation a priority is very much on the administration's front burner, and is for the mayors.
Meanwhile, gay rights advocates also were rallying supporters to show up for today's meeting to talk about domestic partnership registries, which commissioners rejected two months ago.
Commissioner Al Higginbotham was floating a proposal to make forms available at public libraries that would allow people to obtain some of the same benefits registries afford under existing state law, particularly the ability to declare a health care surrogate.