TAMPA — This is not supposed to be possible.
But Hillsborough County commissioners sat down with leaders from the county's three cities and its transit agency Wednesday and managed to reach congenial consensus on a broad public policy matter.
Commissioners met with the county's three mayors and chairman of Hillsborough Area Regional Transit for what at first was billed as a transportation summit but what likely will be the first of several meetings of elected leaders. Their task is to identify what the county's transportation priorities should be and, eventually, how to pursue them given that local governments have little spare money.
"You have a whole new attitude," said Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn. "You have everyone singing from the same song sheet.
"I think we are ready to have a candid conversation about transportation."
The County Commission has a yearslong reputation for fractious relations with city leaders, particularly those from Tampa. The divisiveness has been driven in part by commissioners who represent suburban residents, some of whom resent their tax money flowing to public projects in Tampa instead of improvements to their own roads and parks.
The division played out three years ago, when county voters soundly rejected a referendum that sought their support of a penny sales tax hike to pay for transportation projects. The centerpiece was a new commuter rail system that many county residents thought would only benefit city dwellers.
At Wednesday's meeting, participants generally agreed that there is a need for an investment in the county's transportation system. They also accepted a premise, driven by the county, that the ultimate priority list should get shaped by projects that promote economic development around the county but in targeted areas where growth is desirable.
While there were no votes, the participants also agreed to begin discussing where to focus future investments and that, after that, what sorts of transportation projects should be pursued. Once that work is done, they'll start talking about how to pay for them.
Commissioner Mark Sharpe, who has previously said he'd like to see another referendum put to voters in 2014, said he heard a note of urgency from others on the panel, which he welcomes. But at the same time, the discussion should be deliberative, as other participants such as Commission Chairman Ken Hagan emphasized.
"There's no mystery that I want to get it done," said Sharpe, who leaves the commission in 2014 due to term limits, describing what he took from Wednesday's discussion. "But rather than starting with a conversation about how we're going to pay for it, let's determine what it is first."
Bill Varian can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3387.