TAMPA — Elected leaders who have been meeting for months to plot Hillsborough County's transportation future have yet to talk about actual projects and how to pay for them.
But a consensus began to emerge Wednesday on who should oversee the building and operating of new roads, expanded bus service and planning for commuter rail. That may be the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority, the county's bus agency, said members of the Transportation for Economic Development Policy Leadership Group.
The group, consisting of county commissioners and the mayors of Hillsborough's three cities, said HART would need to be reimagined. For one, its board of directors would have to be expanded to include more elected officials and people skilled in planning roads.
It also would need to include officials with knowledge of economic development because the leadership group wants to prioritize projects based on how much they encourage job creation.
So why HART, which has been criticized over the years for its management of the bus system? Members of the policy group said the one thing they don't want to do is create a new government entity to do the work.
"I don't think the public wants any part of that," said County Commissioner Ken Hagan.
Members noted that HART has experience running a transit system, which will likely be a part of what the policy group recommends; it is a major recipient of federal grant money; it has its own taxing authority; and its governing board already includes a mix of elected leaders from the county and two of its cities. (One or more Plant City representatives would need to be added.)
"I think the basic structure at HART is in place," County Commissioner Kevin Beckner said.
How that would happen remains murky. County Administrator Mike Merrill and County Attorney Chip Fletcher said they would work with their counterparts in the cities to craft a road map to a new HART. That likely would include options involving other government agencies, such as the planning commission, which at least one board member said also should be considered.
HART was created by an interlocal agreement between the governments whose residents it serves, said Fletcher, who has represented both the city of Tampa and HART. That agreement is enabled by state law, which spells out certain parameters under which transit agencies operate and are governed.
Fletcher said he needs to research how changes the policy group envisions can happen.
County commissioners voted unanimously last year to create the policy group to figure out ways to pay for transportation needs for which they have little money. A transit and road-building tax proposed in 2010 was soundly defeated by voters.
That proposal was largely driven by staff planners. For this discussion, Merrill recommended that the county's elected leaders steer the discussion. For months they have been hearing presentations and have focused on ways they can use transportation to support job creation.
County Commissioner Mark Sharpe agreed HART might be the logical agency to head the effort. But he said it is not equipped for the task as it stands today.
He again pleaded for greater urgency, joking that his 12-year-old son would be eligible to run for the County Commission before the current effort bears fruit.