Hernando gazes down road at transportation future

BROOKSVILLE — Someday, the expression "you can't get there from here'' might pass into history.

At least that is the hope of the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority.

This week, Hernando County residents are invited to voice their opinions about how to make that happen. The authority plans a workshop/open house beginning at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Hernando County Government Center.

On the table is a preliminary idea of where to place transportation corridors that someday will tie together the seven-county region stretching from Citrus to Sarasota counties with a network of mass transit options ranging from commuter rail to enhanced bus service.

While Hernando County may not see much immediate benefit from the master transportation plan, which will be produced later this year, county Commissioner Dave Russell said local voices need to be part of the planning.

While Tampa Bay is "playing catch-up'' with its transportation system, Russell said, Hernando County is in good shape right now. By getting involved now in regional planning for projects that may stretch decades into the future, "we're attempting to get ahead of the power curve,'' he said.

The authority also opens the region up to federal dollars to pay for projects, money that has not been available in the past.

Hernando County needs to connect to Tampa and beyond, said Russell, who is a member of the authority's board and a strong supporter of the effort.

"One of the missions of regional transportation authorities is to abandon some of these boundaries to recognize what is the big picture as far as transit is concerned,'' he said.

Bob Clifford, lead staff person for the authority, briefed county commissioners earlier this month about the efforts.

He said that the beauty of the authority is that it has the power to take a master transportation plan from concept to construction. The authority plans for the funding and ends up owning and operating the system.

"There have been a lot of plans'' in each of the communities belonging to the agency, said Cindy Sharpe, spokeswoman for the authority. "You want to be able to take that plan from paper to reality.''

To do that, the authority is visiting all seven counties in the coming days to give people input in the first phase of the master plan, which is focused on the actual transportation corridors and where they should logically connect.

In the months ahead, there will be additional opportunities for public input into the specifics of the modes of transportation that will be included in the master plan. Community surveys are also planned, Sharpe said.

In addition, the authority is making the rounds of community groups that request a presentation on the agency's charge and the master planning process.

How to fund the proposed projects is one key element Sharpe said will need further discussion.

"People really do want transportation improvements and transportation options, but it really does come down to how you pay for it,'' she said.

Hernando County officials are already familiar with that issue. Just last week, the commission talked about how to make its own mass transit system, known as THE Bus, more cost effective as the county seeks to save money.

One idea was to park the buses one day a week. Commissioners deferred a decision until a ridership survey is completed.

Russell, who has long believed that the county wasn't ready for THE Bus when it was established several years ago, said he knows that buses of some sort will have to be part of the picture for Hernando County to work with the regional transportation authority.

As the community grows, he said, he believes a fixed-route bus system will be needed.

Finding ways to use mass transit and technology to remove trucks and other vehicles from the roads creates more capacity on the roads, he said. Removing one semitrailer truck from a highway makes room for 10 cars. Using technology to time traffic lights properly or alert drivers to congested conditions helps alleviate traffic snarls.

Tuesday's meeting and those that follow in the other counties will give local residents and officials a chance to say what only they know about the local traffic patterns and needs. Russell said he encourages residents to offer their ideas to help shape the future.

"We're looking at 50 years down the road here,'' he said. "Maybe the projects won't have a direct impact on Hernando County immediately, but they will happen in the future.''

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1434.

>>Fast facts

If you go

What: Public workshop/open house by the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority

When: 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Tuesday

Where: Hernando County Government Center, County Commission chambers, 20 N Main St., Brooksville

For more information: Visit www.tbarta.com on the Web.

Hernando gazes down road at transportation future 03/08/08 [Last modified: Saturday, March 8, 2008 2:36pm]

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