A proposed regional transportation board faces a bumpy road in the city of Tampa.
The Hillsborough Transportation Planning Organization — elected and appointed officials overseeing transportation planning in the county — on Wednesday agreed to participate in a state-mandated study of combining the panel with its counterparts in Pasco and Pinellas counties.
The push for regionalism comes amid the dismantling of a separate multicounty agency, the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transit Authority, which is shutting down after losing state funding and failing to reach an agreement on a transit system to serve the area.
Advocates contend a new regional planning board will increase opportunities to obtain state money for transportation in the three counties.
But others living in and representing the city of Tampa were skeptical. Tampa City Council chairperson Guido Maniscalco noted that citizen concerns, particularly regarding interstate highway expansions, will become diluted among a three-county planning agency.
“I feel like their voices would be lost,” he said.
His sentiment echoed the comments from three members of the public who spoke prior to the board debate: Rick Fernandez, chairperson of the citizens committee advising the Hillsborough Transportation Planning Organization; transit advocate Chris Vela of Ybor City; and Mike Drabak of Tampa all opposed the merger.
Tampa City Council members Alan Clendenin and Lynn Hurtak also expressed doubts but voted to join the study, which must be completed by Dec. 1. Clendenin said the study was premature. Hurtak said the regional board’s representation should be based on more than a county’s population and should account for the high volume of daily commuter traffic into Tampa.
The debate, a continuation of the Hillsborough board’s discussion in March, seemed to be settled by the state requirement to complete the study.
“If we don’t want to be at the table for this discussion, we’re going to be on the table for dinner,” said Hillsborough Commissioner Harry Cohen. “At the very least, we want to engage.”
The study will determine costs, apportionment on the board, a business plan and other considerations that would be authorized in a future agreement, called a memorandum of understanding, among the three counties. Though the study is supposed to be finished by Dec. 1, an eventual merger wouldn’t be put into effect until July 1, 2027, if the state approves.
The board overwhelmingly approved joining the study, with only Maniscalco and Hillsborough County School Board member Jessica Vaughn of New Tampa dissenting.