Dozen agencies struggle to be heard on Hillsborough transit plan

Published March 9 2014
Updated March 10 2014

TAMPA — In Hillsborough County, a dozen different agencies are responsible for some aspect of transportation.

There's HART and TBARTA, the MPO and the PTC. The Tampa Hillsborough Expressway Authority plays a role. So do county government and the cities of Tampa, Temple Terrace and Plant City.

As discussions of the area's transportation future heat up once again, some local officials say this fragmentation is making it hard to get anything done.

"No one entity has overriding authority," says Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe, a strong advocate of mass transit. "We need to be working more collaboratively."

While having multiple transportation agencies is not unusual, it can cause problems if leadership is lacking, says Daniel Sperling, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis.

"A collection of government agencies have to work together," Sperling says, "even when they all have different priorities, influence and different amounts of money."

In Florida, Hillsborough County seems to take separation to the extreme.

This county has one of the most decentralized transportation decision-making processes in the state, Hillsborough County Attorney Chip Fletcher noted recently at a meeting of the Transportation for Economic Development Policy Leadership Group — yet another transportation entity.

Other counties in Florida combine related agencies, Fletcher said, such as the Planning Commission and the Public Transportation Commission or port and aviation authorities.

"There's not another one I found that had everything separated," he said.

The sheer number of players makes coming up with unified decisions on transportation issues difficult, said County Commissioner Sandra Murman, who serves on the boards of five of the 12 agencies.

"We lack one voice," Murman said. "I think that's a huge weakness."

And each entity has its own funding source, ranging from an approximately $1.5 million state grant to the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority in 2012 to the more than $26.4 million in property taxes collected last year by the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority.

"When you have this sprinkling of funds around different projects and different groups," Murman says, "you're not going to get that big return on investment that I think our citizens want right now."

While no one is trying to eliminate any of the groups, both Murman and Sharpe are in favor of making one of them stronger.

They, along with some other members of the Transportation for Economic Development group (which includes county commissioners and the mayors of Hillsborough's three cities) suggested that HART may be the ideal agency to oversee the building and operation of new roads, expansion of bus service and planning for commuter rail.

The change would most likely require a restructuring of HART to include more elected officials and planning experts, though no details have been worked out.

"We just want HART to go beyond simply managing buses and take on a broader mission," says Sharpe, who also serves on the boards of the Metropolitan Planning Organization, HART and TBARTA.

Tampa City Council member Mike Suarez, who serves as chairman of HART and as a member of the Transportation for Economic Development group, isn't convinced that would solve anything.

"No transit agency anywhere in the country has the kind of power — implementation power — they are talking about," Suarez says. "(HART) is doing very well in terms of our budget and in what we are able to provide. We don't have dollars to expand service now, we don't have the capability to do more technology. Those are problems we need to solve and having a new, different organization doesn't solve that problem."

Instead, he suggests, the Transportation for Economic Development group, which he joined two months ago, needs to focus more on what it hopes to accomplish.

"I wish I knew more about what we are trying to do because I don't think it has been fleshed out yet," Suarez says. "We haven't talked about how we are going to make things work."

That hasn't stopped others in the group from moving as quickly as possible. The group hopes to present a plan for the future of transportation in Hillsborough sometime this summer, despite not knowing exactly what that means or who will see it through.

Regardless of who is responsible, early success will be key, Murman says, to bringing on board voters who rejected attempts to fund transportation projects in the past.

"They'll need to be successful quickly," Murman says, "to gain credibility in the community."

Times news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Shelley Rossetter can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3401.