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Transportation talks coming to Hillsborough

TAMPA — Hillsborough commissioners voted unanimously Wednesday to begin discussions with the county's three mayors and other government leaders about future transportation needs.

Commissioner Mark Sharpe rattled off a series of worst-of lists — from Forbes magazine to the GPS service TomTom — ranking Hillsborough near the bottom in terms of congestion. And he argued that it's not just a headache for those who live here but is hampering quality growth and business recruitment.

"We've got a PR issue," Sharpe said. "I know there are folks who say we need to sit tight and wait. I don't think that's a strategy at all."

The vote specifically directed 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.

Other leaders from planning agencies to the heads of the Tampa Port Authority, Tampa International Airport and Tampa-Hillsborough County Expressway Authority likely will be asked to join later.

Merrill described them as the "funders and constructors." They will be urged to discuss what the county's priorities should be to improve transportation. Commissioners have specifically said they want to emphasize transportation projects that spur economic development, create jobs and bring a return on investment.

"There is a correlation between transportation and economic development," commission chairman Ken Hagan said.

Ideally, officials hope to convene the transportation summit within six weeks.

The vote came as dozens of advocates for both addressing transportation and creating other modes of transit urged commissioners to begin taking action and setting deadlines. A handful of speakers, including tea party sympathizers, urged caution when it comes to rail.

The most poignant moment may have been when the head of the Hillsborough County Young Democrats read a statement written jointly with his counterpart from the Hillsborough County Young Republicans.

"Improving Hillsborough's transit system is not a partisan issue," it read. "As young professionals, blue-collar laborers, students and entrepreneurs, we want to live in a community that encourages smart, cost-efficient and systematic growth."

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, who met with Merrill last week, applauded the direction the county is taking.

"I will be a willing and enthusiastic participant in any discussions," Buckhorn said. "It makes sense to look at this from a comprehensive, countywide perspective."

The talks begin as Pinellas County commissioners lay the groundwork for asking voters there to raise the sales tax in exchange for a reduction in property taxes to pay for new transit, including light rail. Pinellas officials are pushing for a 2014 referendum.

Supporters in Hillsborough similarly pressed commissioners to set a timeline for their own discussion. Merrill said that will come after the county's elected leaders reach a consensus on the direction in which they'd like to head.

Staff writer Richard Danielson contributed to this report. Bill Varian can be reached at varian@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3387.

Transportation talks coming to Hillsborough 03/20/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 20, 2013 10:12pm]
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