TAMPA — Two weeks ago, a group of local elected leaders made official what some had implied for months: Hillsborough Area Regional Transit will oversee expanded public transit, adding much more to its operations than bus and van service.
Before the community can get more buses, a high-speed ferry and rail, it needs a central agency in charge of transit, decided members of Hillsborough's transportation policy leadership group, which has been meeting for more than a year.
This week, HART Chairman Mike Suarez had a response: Not so fast.
"The leadership group doesn't have any real power. It's just a group meeting to talk about things," said Suarez, also a Tampa City Council member, in a phone interview. His comments echoed what he said in a HART board meeting Monday to County Commission Chairman Mark Sharpe.
"Only HART will make a decision if it will change the nature of what it does," Suarez said.
Suarez's rebuke illustrates the political hurdles ahead for the policy leadership group, scheduled to talk this month, for the first time, about specific projects and costs. Even among protransit folks — Suarez favors more public spending — there is significant disagreement over how to make it happen.
Suarez was not happy to hear, at Monday's meeting, County Administrator Mike Merrill say a draft of the policy group's plan calls for a 50-50 split in new spending between road projects and transit projects, like more buses. The money would come from a new countywide sales tax, which would require voter approval in a referendum.
"I have a problem with using transit as a stalking horse to get more road projects built," Suarez said.
Days after the meeting, Commissioner Sharpe was still confused about what Suarez was criticizing.
"I just kind of felt like he was frustrated and trying to explain why the current system works," Sharpe said. "He was trying to defend the status quo, and I don't think the status quo works."
The policy leadership group — made up of the seven county commissioners and mayors of Hillsborough's three cities — has been criticized for its plodding pace. Its June 26 meeting will mark the culmination of 13 months of meetings. Then the leaders will take a list of proposed projects to their communities to try to build public support.
The deliberate pace is a direct response to criticism of the failed 2010 Hillsborough transit referendum, Merrill said — for not being specific enough.
"That's why we took as much time as we did, and drilled down project by project," Merrill said.
As for any disagreement within the HART board about change, Merrill said there is one easy solution:
The county commissioners and the mayors of Tampa and Temple Terrace — all on the policy group calling for change — appoint 11 of the 13 HART board members. They could just replace the current HART board members with themselves, Merrill said, and vote to make the changes they want.
A potential board overhaul will be discussed at the policy group's June 26 meeting, Merrill said.
Sharpe said he didn't think it would come to that.
"We are working with them (HART board members) because we want them to see that this is in the best interest of the community," Sharpe said. "I don't think there's ever been any entity in government that's ever been transformed that hasn't pushed back. … Change like this takes time."
Will Hobson can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3400.