Saturday, November 25, 2017
Transportation

HART takes up making big changes to itself

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TAMPA — On Monday, the agency that runs Hillsborough County's bus service will have an unusual discussion: Decide if its own board should be remade, likely leading to several of its directors being ousted.

Transforming Hillsborough Area Regional Transit from an authority that oversees buses, streetcars and special transit services into the entity that directs massive transportation improvements in the county — including light rail — is the brainchild of a group of elected officials and government administrators.

The metamorphosis goes along with a proposal to ask Hillsborough voters in 2016 to charge themselves an extra penny in sales tax to help pay for transportation improvements that could include rail, express bus service, wider roads, walkways and additional tolls.

"If people are going to vote to build this," said County Administrator Mike Merrill at a briefing on the proposal last week, "they want to know if they can hold people accountable, to know the people that are on the board have the authority to get stuff done.

"This isn't about kicking people out and punishing and embarrassing them. We have to get past, as a community, this notion of blame."

As it stands now, the HART board is made up of 13 volunteers — seven appointed by the County Commission, three by the city of Tampa, two by the governor and one by the city of Temple Terrace. Six of the 13 — less than half — are currently elected officials.

Under an idea proposed last week, the board would still include the gubernatorial appointees but all the county commissioners and mayors of Hillsborough's three cities would now be directors. The majority of the board would then be composed of elected officials, but none specifically elected to the HART board.

HART's mission would grow ambitiously — from running an $86 million a year operating budget to overseeing the spending of more than $5 billion over three decades.

The Tampa Bay Times reached several members to see how Monday's discussion might go.

HART board member Steven Polzin, an engineer at the University of South Florida, said if the discussion determines that the governance should change, then "so be it."

Hillsborough County Commissioner Les Miller said he's in favor of adding more elected officials to the board.

"I think that it's a step in the right direction if Hillsborough County is going to have better transportation," Miller said.

He was just appointed to the board by fellow commissioners last week to replace Anne Madden, a businesswoman from Ruskin who recently resigned.

County Commission Chairman Mark Sharpe, who also serves on the HART board, said he's in support of making HART into a super agency. He believes HART is up to the task but needs a more "robust voice."

"To be effective and efficient with every dollar that comes in, you need a umbrella organization," he said.

Some HART members expressed reservations.

Josh Burgin, who was appointed by Gov. Rick Scott, opposed a similar transportation tax referendum in 2010. Burgin said the suggestion to remake the board is an "enormous power grab"— one that it is "almost unprecedented in a local government sense."

Contact Liz Crampton at [email protected] or (813)-226-3401. Follow her @liz_crampton.

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