Tampa Bay’s congested roadways and slim transit offerings are no secret. Neither are the business community’s calls that a regional planning group could be part of the solution.
Hillsborough County transportation leaders seemed to agree Wednesday morning that such a merger seems increasingly to be a question of when and how, not if.
But some elected officials want to make sure that public transit improvements and the needs of everyday commuters, outside of business priorities, don’t fall through the cracks.
At the moment, Pinellas, Pasco and Hillsborough counties each have their own Metropolitan Planning Organizations which oversee transportation planning at the local level. They serve as conduits for financing major projects with the state and federal governments.
The region’s Florida Department of Transportation secretary David Gwynn said a merger, resulting in the largest MPO in the state, would help craft a comprehensive, regional vision for transportation priorities.
“Most people and most businesses don’t care where the county lines are,” he said. “All you know is you need to get from point A to point B.”
It could also help the area compete for state and federal dollars, he added.
“We are receiving less in the Tampa Bay region over the next five years than either the Orlando region or the Jacksonville region — both of whom have regional MPOs,” he said, urging board members to view a merger as an opportunity for regional strength not local diminishment.
But officials representing the city of Tampa and Hillsborough County were wary.
“I’ve heard the promise of money forever,” Commissioner Pat Kemp said. “I’ve just never seen it demonstrated.”
She noted the different demographics and growth of the three counties, stressing Hillsborough alone has a larger population than about a dozen states.
The discussion comes less than a week after lawmakers introduced legislation that would require the state’s transportation department, or its consultant, to study a merger between the agencies which operate the buses in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties — HART and PSTA.
“If you want to see a tremendous regional planning example in our region, look no further than Tampa International,” said Joe Lopano, the airport’s chief executive officer.
“We planned for the power of the region, not for a parochial Hillsborough County plan,” he said, adding a regional approach has been critical to the airport’s ability to attract worldwide routes.
But the promise of improved frequency of flights to Europe is likely to be of little comfort to those struggling to find a reliable bus route to work, Kemp said.
“It pains me to say this. The model that we have has not been successful,” County Commissioner Harry Cohen said. “It’s not because we don’t have good and well-meaning board members. It’s not because we don’t have an engaged public. It’s not because we don’t have excellent, really good staff. It’s because something about the way funding and decision making is structured in this state has left this region continually behind in terms of getting our fair share.”
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Executive Director and CEO of the Tampa Hillsborough Expressway Authority Gregory Slater praised a potential merger to boost the region’s insufficient infrastructure. The daily usage record for the Selmon Expressway was broken fives times in the last month, he said.
“We have more people on the roads because we don’t offer any other opportunities,” Tampa City Councilmember Lynn Hurtak said. “All we are doing is building more lanes. And guess what? Before those lanes are even finished, they’ll be at capacity again.”
She and other city council members expressed concern that a merger would simply mean more dollars for highway expansion, with little attention given public transit needs and quality-of-life improvements both within and outside Hillsborough County’s urban core.
“I would love to consider this more if we were talking about actually transit,” she said. “But I’ve heard nothing today that talks about that.”
In 2019, consulting firm Stantect conducted a MPO Regional Coordination Report to identity barriers to execution and develop implementational scenarios. More recently, Hillsborough planning staff used 2020 census population to offer an example of what representation on a merged MPO could look like, principal planner Elizabeth Watkins said Wednesday.
The board can have a maximum of 25 members. In the example, Hillsborough County would have 12 seats: four from the City of Tampa and eight from unincorporated areas. Pinellas County would have nine, with three for the City of St. Petersburg. Pasco county would have four. The current Hillsborough County MPO has 16 board members, 10 of those are elected officials.
Change is not going to happen overnight. “Even if everyone was on the same page tomorrow to go toward a regional MPO,” Watkins said, “there are multiple steps that would need to be taken to ensure that flow of federal transportation funding is not impacted.”