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Focus groups critiquing transportation plan

Television producers use them, and so do the makers of everything from electric cars to microwave popcorn. Now Hillsborough County's transportation planners have decided to join the trend. Local planners are turning to focus groups to help refine their update of a 20-year master plan for Hillsborough's transportation network.

Wednesday, the Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) began a series of meetings in which community leaders and residents from different parts of the county are invited to critique the MPO's 2010 Transportation Plan.

The MPO had several public meetings last year to solicit views on the plan, which guides the county and its cities in future road building and transit planning.

But the turnout was poor, said MPO executive director Tom Thomson, and the agency wanted new and additional public participation.

"I hope it (the focus group) gives us an indication of where the strong points are in the plan and where the weak parts are," Thomson said.

Groups from south Hillsborough and the Town 'N Country area met separately Wednesday with MPO officials to hear an overview of the plan.

They learned that 680 of the 1,384 miles of road under the MPO's jurisdiction are scheduled for some kind of improvement in the next 20 years, not necessarily involving additional lanes of traffic.

Strategies such as making intersection improvements and adding turn lanes will become a larger part of road improvement in the future, Thomson said.

And the group learned that the new network envisions an expanded role for HARTline, the county's bus system, with more express routes and more frequent buses. But the plan only touches on more ambitious mass transit alternatives, such as rail routes.

That's what drew the ire of resident Tom Parsons.

"Why was there so little consideration given to anything but vehicles with rubber wheels and internal combustion engines?" asked Parsons, who wants to see fewer new roads and more thought given to a rail transit system.

"All I'm seeing here convinces me that we're building a system that's going to copy the same disaster they have in California," Parsons said.

That view differed from a south Hillsborough focus group, which earlier in the day complained there weren't enough new roads in their area to accommodate future growth, said Frank Rosenblatt, a member of the MPO's citizen advisory committee.

Thomson said his staff will consider suggestions from the meetings, which continue today and Friday, as they work on the plan's final draft.

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