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Hillsborough transit agency's new CEO says he is here to listen

Benjamin Limmer, CEO of the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority, takes over as the agency faces its biggest budget ever. [BRANDEN CAMP/AJC]
Published Mar. 25

Benjamin Limmer's first day as the chief executive for Hillsborough's transit authority will start bright and early today, as he greets drivers and other employees at 5 a.m. and then makes his way to different bus stops to shake hands with riders.

Limmer, 40, takes the helm at the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority during a time of opportunity, public scrutiny, and the biggest budget — about $200 million — the agency has ever seen.

The last CEO, Katharine Eagan, had to cut routes as a result of operating one of the largest service areas in the country with one of the tightest budgets. Eagan left the agency in January 2018, and a few months later, a citizen group helped pass a one-cent transportation sales tax that is expected to raise $15.8 billion over 30 years. About $1.4 billion is expected to go to the county's transit agency in the next decade.

The agency's board voted last month to name Limmer, who previously served as the assistant general manager of Atlanta's transit authority, as its next CEO.

Limmer will oversee what he called "a truly transformational investment that's going to span a generation" as the transit authority prepares to expand bus service and potentially add light rail, dedicated bus lanes and an expanded streetcar to its services.

The Tampa Bay Times spoke with Limmer in advance of his first day to learn more about the executive's philosophy on transit, experience in other cities and hopes for Hillsborough County. Here are five takeaways.

Limmer's No. 1 focus is customer service

Before anything else, Limmer talks about customer service. And by that, what he really means is customer satisfaction.

"As an agency, it is vitally important that we continuously exceed customer expectations," Limmer said. "HART is a customer-centric organization. We're going to be proactive, we're going to think like our customers and build experiences for our customers from their wants, needs and expectations, regardless of where they're located in the county."

Limmer said the agency already has history of customer satisfaction. He sees it as a strength that he hopes to help grow.

"We're people serving people," Limmer said. "We're more than schedules and a slogan and way for people to get from point A to point B."

How the sales tax is spent depends on what people want

The community voiced a tremendous vote of confidence in the transit authority when it approved a billion dollar-plus investment in the agency's service, Limmer said. While residents approved spending more money on transit, they didn't vote on specific projects.

Limmer said the charter amendment does outline some goals: expanding bus service throughout the county, running buses more frequently, extending the hours they operate, and adding what he called "high capacity transit options" — things like rail, bus rapid transit, trolleys and other options beyond a bus.

Limmer is intent on working with the community to determine exactly what projects the money will pay for.

"We really want to be invited into any and all discussions with the community, in really traditional and non-traditional settings," Limmer said. "I want to hear and share all the ideas that are out there."

He has experience with sales tax revenue and building rail

During Limmer's time in Phoenix and Atlanta, he helped create and expand rail lines with the help of sales tax revenue, along with improving bus service and adding more transit choices.

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. The agency's core bus and rail projects are funded through a one-cent sales tax. Limmer was also part of a team in Phoenix that shaped a 60-mile light rail network and a 3-mile streetcar in Tempe.

"The biggest lesson learned is to work with the community to really build the transit system that the customers and citizens across the county really want," Limmer said.

He wants to hear all views, including the opposition

Part of understanding what a community wants is listening to everyone, "not just simply those who favor transit," Limmer said.

Like many in the community, Limmer is waiting to hear whether a lawsuit filed by county commissioner and former HART board member Stacy White will overturn the transportation sales tax. Until then, Limmer said his job is to keep the agency focused on its mission.

"As soon as a direction is decided, we're going to implement the direction that's given to us," "Limmer said. "Our mission is to be customer-centric, and I'm staying focused on that mission."

Public transportation is a passion for him, not just a job

Limmer grew up in Michigan, with many of his family members working in the automobile industry. He learned early on that transportation is vital to the success of a community, and he became passionate about the role public transit plays in peoples lives.

"I knew I wanted to work to connect people to life," Limmer said. "I feel tremendously blessed that I have an opportunity to help get people to work, to school, to take them to doctor appointments to connect them to recreation and their communities."

Contact Caitlin Johnston at cjohnston@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst.

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