RUSKIN — Traffic headaches, population growth and decreasing HART service dominated the discussion during a recent SouthShore town hall meeting staged by Hillsborough County Commissioners Sandra Murman and Stacy White.
More than 200 people gathered in the Lennard High School auditorium to express their concerns, complaints and hopes to gain support from the county for their transportation needs.
Also on hand to try to address questions at the June 26 meeting: HART CEO Katharine Eagan, County Administrator Mike Merrill, Florida Department of Transportation manager Ed McKinney, Director of Public Works John Lyons and Florida Planning Practice Leader Scott Pringle.
"We know that you all are concerned about transportation in South County," Murman said, "We are going to do whatever we can to educate you on what the plans are to help reduce the gridlock in this area and also try to bring some good options for transportation to you.
"We want to paint the picture for you tonight so that you can see the vision and hear about the transformation that's going on."
HART recently proposed to discontinue two HARTFlex service routes in Sun City Center and Wimauma (Routes 47LX and 53LX). While the proposal would also maintain the van-based HARTFlex service in South County to provide local circulation, and connections from South County to Brandon via the Route 31, the potential change to 47LX and 53LX proved to be a recurring theme during the meeting.
Residents argued the service is essential for the dense population of seniors in this area who depend on the bus service as their only means of getting to Apollo Beach, Riverview or Brandon for shopping, medical appointments, movies and other "quality of life" needs.
Residents outside of the retired population who remain in the work force rely on the buses to get to their places of employment.
Eagan responded by pointing out the transit system is grossly underfunded. She noted that Hillsborough County has one of the lowest percentages of tax dollars spent on public transit in the United States. HART buses cover an area of approximately 1,000 square miles (roughly the size of Rhode Island) with a fleet of only 200 buses.
She said the specific routes in question aren't lucrative enough to support the cost of paying a driver, which requires approximately $75 per round trip and that amount is not acquired when picking up only 15-20 passengers. Eagan did invite concerned residents to contact HART.
Residents also expressed concern about traffic in SouthShore, particularly State Road 674 and Big Bend Road. Merrill noted that the county's 10-year, $812-million transportation plan includes designs to enhance Big Bend Road without increasing taxes.
However, the commission rejected putting a tax increase proposal on the ballot for public approval. The increase would have provided more dollars for HART and road improvements.
Officials also will widen U.S. 301 to six lanes from Big Bend Road to State Road 674.
White added that the commission approved a plan to add turn-lane enhancements to State Road 674 when FDOT repaves the state road next year.
"That will increase traffic flow and help with traffic circulation across the entire length of 674," said White, adding that the project should be completed within the next two years.
The evening's third issue revolved around growth in both Wimauma and Ruskin and how it's exacerbating the traffic issues in the area. Murman noted that developers purchased huge tracts of land in the 1980s and '90s, and have now begun to develop areas before the proper infrastructure had been put into place to support the additional traffic.
Commissioner White suggested an increase in the fees for new developers to try to get these road improvements to pay for themselves.
"We're just going to have to think outside the box on these issues," White said.
Contact Kathy Straub at firstname.lastname@example.org.