TAMPA — Hillsborough County's transit agency board unanimously selected Benjamin Limmer as its next CEO on Friday, choosing the Atlanta official to oversee a possible injection of $1.4 billion into the agency over the next decade.
Limmer, the assistant general manager of Atlanta's transit authority, touted his experience with sales tax revenue and expanding transit service in multiple cities, including a 60-mile light rail network in Phoenix and a bus rapid transit line in Cleveland.
"Quite honestly, I was built for this job," Limmer said Friday.
The Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Agency board interviewed Limmer and Carrie Osborne Butler of Lexington, Kentucky, to replace Katharine Eagan, who left for Pittsburgh a year ago. Cleveland Ferguson of Jacksonville had also made the short list, but withdrew his name over the weekend.
Limmer does not yet have a start date, though the board will likely look to expedite the process as a jam-packed first year awaits the new executive.
Before interviewing the CEO candidates, the board discussed several deadlines the agency must hit by Oct. 1, including drafting a new budget, redesigning the bus network and finalizing a list of projects to be funded by the new one-cent transportation sales tax approved in November by Hillsborough County voters.
"We do not have time to sit around to get this process moving," interim CEO Jeff Seward said.
Complicating that process is a pending lawsuit that will determine whether the transit agency will receive more than $130 million in new tax revenue or if it must operate within its existing budget of about $80 million. Limmer and the rest of the transit agency's staff will have to navigate the planning hurdles that come with preparing for two drastically different budgets.
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Board member and Temple Terrace City Council member Gil Schisler asked both Limmer and Butler whether they would have applied for the position had the sales tax not been approved. (The board waited to post the position until after the Nov. 6 election.)
While Butler said the tax would make for a much more exciting opportunity, she said the agency was still in a positive place of change and transformation, regardless of whether the money comes through.
Limmer took a different approach: "The tax did pass, so that has been my focus and what I've been reviewing since the first week of November."
Board member and Hillsborough County Commissioner Pat Kemp said Limmer's depth of experience, particularly with expansion projects, made him an ideal candidate.
"Mr. Limmer is everything I would’ve ever wanted or imagined in someone to bring HART forward," Kemp said.
Limmer's salary will be decided during contract negotiations. Gregg Moser, a consultant who led the CEO search, previously told the board the position was posted with a salary range of $180,000 to $220,000. Eagan made $183,000 annually in Hillsborough before she moved to Pittsburgh last year with a salary of $230,000.
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Limmer told the Tampa Bay Times following his selection that he was humbled by the board's support and viewed this as a tremendous opportunity.
The new CEO said he looks forward to working with staff and board members to outline a plan to manage several pending deadlines amidst the uncertainty of the tax revenue all within his first year in a new role and city.
"That’s going to be really how we tackle all of the responsibilities on the horizon," Limmer said. "I look forward to listening and working with the constituents and citizens throughout the county to ensure that HART is best meeting their needs."
Limmer spent the past three years with Atlanta's transit authority, known as MARTA, the ninth-largest in the nation. He oversaw community outreach and data collection through key performance indicators, two areas board members questioned him about Friday.
His time in Atlanta and Phoenix give him experience with managing sales tax revenue as well. The counties near Atlanta passed two sales tax referenda in the past five years that are expected to raise $10 billion in more than 40 years, Limmer told the board. The agency's core bus and rail projects are also funded through a one-cent sales tax.
Limmer was part of a team in Phoenix that shaped a 60-mile light rail network and a 3-mile streetcar in Tempe.
"My job was to take the projects from, we’ll call it birth, shepherd it through all the way to securing the capital investment grant through the federal government," Limmer said.
Tyler Hudson, chair of All For Transportation, the group that put the Hillsborough sales tax on the ballot, said he was thrilled with Limmer’s selection.
Limmer also drew praise from Rick Homans, CEO of the Tampa Bay Partnership, a business group that expressed concerns about the candidate pool and asked Hillsborough's transit agency board to expand the search.
Homans said Limmer called him directly after reading about the partnership's concerns and offered to meet him in person to discuss his background and the state of transportation in Tampa.
"To me, that showed a level of maturity and leadership that I think is really important to have in the job," Homans said. "It showed he was responding to valid concerns being raised and wanted to address them directly."
Contact Caitlin Johnston at [email protected] or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst.