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  1. Transportation

Public input helps shape Hillsborough transportation plan

TAMPA — If it wasn't clear before that people in different parts of Hillsborough County have different transportation needs, it is now.

Ruskin and Sun City Center residents bemoan the state of their intersections. Those in Lutz say better multiuse trails are good for families and allow more options for bicyclists and pedestrians. And over in West Tampa, attendees clamor for light rail.

About 900 people voiced their concerns during a dozen meetings in the last month, telling officials what they think is wrong with transportation in Hillsborough County. The meetings were the first in a series of four phases known as "Go Hillsborough" that are supposed to help officials determine how best to address transportation issues.

The second phase started Tuesday evening, when attendees at a Temple Terrace meeting were asked to prioritize projects. While previous sessions produced a broad wish list, this round asks participants to narrow the list and rank them.

"Now we're fine-tuning the first round of things we learned," said Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill. "We're in that intermediate step, making sure we're on the right path before we make it to the next round and start looking at cost."

The idea is to make sure officials are properly processing and understanding what citizens are asking for.

"We intend to share what the input is showing us about folks' values, priorities, commonalities and differences," said George Walton, senior vice president for Parsons Brinckerhoff, a consulting firm that is being paid $900,000 to develop the plan and handle public outreach.

About 40 people weighed in Tuesday evening on which projects were worth pursuing. At one point, they were asked to pick which category of improvements they found most vital: maintenance, roads, transit, intersections, or bike and pedestrian.

The key part of this stage, Merrill said, is showing the community how all aspects are intertwined and together improve the transportation network overall.

Though each part of the county has different priorities, data from previous meetings showed that both east and west Hillsborough residents said improving both roads and transit was essential. The central region called for a stronger focus on transit, while south county said roads should receive a majority of attention.

Four other meetings will take place before the end of the month, including a telephone town hall where residents can call in to give their input.

"This is a great start, letting people who live here be involved instead of just having us come in and listen to a presentation about how it's going to be," said Jim Barnard of Temple Terrace, who attended the March 10 meeting.

Merrill said the goal is to have a specific plan and a way to pay for it by fall so that officials have a year to build momentum for a 2016 referendum in which the county could ask voters to approve an extra sales tax for transportation.

Similar measures failed in Pinellas and Polk counties in 2014 and in Hillsborough in 2010.

Madison Parker, 23, attended two meetings. She recently moved here from San Francisco and said she found it hard to adjust to the lack of transit and pedestrian options. And when she does walk or bike, she said she doesn't feel nearly as safe.

"That's one of the first things I noticed," Parker said. "Giving people the opportunity to rate what they think is most important can be, and I think will be, really important."

Contact Caitlin Johnston at cjohnston@tampabay.com or (813) 661-2443. Follow @cljohnst.

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