Tuesday, April 24, 2018
Politics

Hillsborough commissioner revives transportation talks

TAMPA — Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe is calling for renewed talks about how to address the county's transportation needs as Pinellas County commissioners move toward asking voters there to consider a new transit tax.

Sharpe is calling for a series of transportation "summits" between commissioners and representatives of the county's three cities, along with civic groups, to develop a 30-year priority list of road and transit work. He said his hope is to develop something by November that can be taken to voters a year later, paralleling the planned Pinellas vote.

"The objective is for Hillsborough County to be prepared in 2014 to have a very focused conversation about what we're going to do next on transportation," Sharpe said. "There's got to be a way we can do this and have the whole community feeling good about it."

He has scheduled the discussion for the commission's next meeting, March 20.

Sharpe, in his final two years on the board due to term limits, was a leading advocate of a 2010 Hillsborough referendum that sought voter support of a penny sales tax hike to pay for roads, expanded bus service and local commuter rail. Critics characterized it as a tax for a costly transportation option — rail — that would serve few in a sprawling county, and the measure failed.

Sharpe said his hope now is that the group will consider including a small, limited-use rail line, perhaps linking the airport to the West Shore business district. That would keep costs from swallowing a large chunk of any new tax dollars and allow rail to prove itself.

"This gets us moving forward," Sharpe said. "Then we can have another conversation in the future about where we go from there."

However, he said he is not wedded to the idea and ultimately wants to reach consensus among elected leaders and others on transportation priorities. He said he also is open to ideas on how to pay for them, but said the conversation shouldn't start there.

County Administrator Mike Merrill has already suggested revised wording for Sharpe's proposal that further tamps down any leap to talk of tax increases. He suggests holding a single summit between commissioners and the cities' mayors to develop a broader strategy for addressing transportation needs before specific projects are discussed.

"The leadership of this community has the responsibility to set the tone," Merrill said. "If leadership can't agree, why even have a community conversation?"

Any discussions are likely to be cautious, with four of seven commission seats up for election in 2014. But a majority of commissioners have voiced support in recent board workshops for holding a community summit or summits on transportation.

Those discussions have come in the context of commissioners exploring ways to pay for road work in defined areas of the county as a way of encouraging development in targeted areas.

"I'm excited someone is putting it forward to make it a formal proposal," said Kevin Thurman, executive director of Connect Tampa Bay, a recently formed group pushing for a regional approach to transportation planning that does not rely solely on roads.

Sharpe's comments came the same day Pinellas commissioners voted 5-1 to conceptually support asking voters there in 2014 whether they support raising the sales tax by a penny. Proceeds would replace a portion of property tax bills that pays for the county's transit agency and would cover construction of a 24-mile light-rail line.

"The time has come," Pinellas Commissioner Karen Seel said.

Times staff writer Anna M. Phillips contributed to this report. Bill Varian can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3387.

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