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  1. Transportation

Hillsborough elected officials approve larger transit role for HART

County Administrator Mike Merrill says HART is the best choice as a central authority.
County Administrator Mike Merrill says HART is the best choice as a central authority.
Published May 30, 2014

TAMPA — A reconstructed Hillsborough Area Regional Transit will move beyond bus routes to take on a broader role as the central transportation agency for the county, a group of elected officials has decided.

The expansion includes placing the Hillsborough Public Transportation Commission — the controversial agency that regulates vehicles for hire in the county — under its umbrella.

County Administrator Mike Merrill said the plan to expand HART's role and reconfigure its board of directors arose from a lack of central authority for governing transit in the county.

"We need one entity that has the authority, accountability and funding to pull it off," he said. "HART makes the most sense."

Currently, the HART board is made up of seven Hillsborough County members, three Tampa members, two state members and a Temple Terrace member.

The reorganized board would be made up of the seven county commissioners, the mayors of Tampa, Plant City and Temple Terrace, and two gubernatorial appointees.

Merrill said the group is working to find the most respectful and expedient way to transition to the new board.

The current gubernatorial appointments would remain in place, and the rest of the members would be appointed by the city and county governments. So, he said, there is no action required from the Legislature.

The idea of incorporating the PTC, which regulates cabs, limos and other vehicles for hire, was suggested by County Commissioner Victor Crist. He serves as chairman of the agency, which has come under fire for stifling innovative transportation ideas. Some legislators have tried — unsuccessfully — to abolish it.

The Policy Leadership Group — a committee of elected municipal and county officials who have been meeting for months on transportation issues — approved the plan Wednesday.

By modifying HART, the county will be able to start getting things in order for a potential transit referendum in fall 2016, Merrill said.

"We need to get projects in the ground," Merrill said. "To wait a year or two to create a new entity doesn't make sense."

Kevin Thurman, executive director of the transit advocacy group Connect Tampa Bay, said he wants to see the full business plan before rendering a final opinion. But he noted that a recent survey shows Hillsborough residents want a frequent, reliable bus service — and for now, there's no indication how the restructuring would help achieve that goal.

"It's great they want to reorganize, but it's the outcomes that matter most," he said. "Before we change what we're going to and turn everything upside down, the public needs to know what direction they're headed in."

Tampa City Council member Lisa Montelione, who is vice president of the Metropolitan Planning Organization, said she wished Merrill would have brought all the parties invested in the county's transportation plans to the table before deciding.

"I think it makes sense that since HART is our agency that provides public transportation that they expand their role, but I'm not sure it's entirely up to the leadership group to make that decision," Montelione said.

County Commissioner Mark Sharpe, who has been advocating for transit change for years, called the plan a "HART transplant" on Twitter. The changes will create a far more robust HART capable of running more buses, taking on larger projects and increasing opportunities for transit-oriented development, he said.

"Our problem is that it's been so disjointed with agencies that are only responsible for their particular area," Sharpe said. "This will enable it to be far more effective and far more responsible with the money we're spending."

Times staff writer Ernest Hooper contributed to this report. Caitlin Johnston can be reached at cjohnston@tampabay.com.

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