HART board members today voted unanimously to agree to vote at their August 4 meeting on whether or not to support the proposal brought forward in May by Hillsborough County Administrator Mike Merrill to have the transit agency reconfigured. The new organization would be headed by a new group consisting of the entire County Commission as well as the mayors of Tampa, Plant City and Temple Terrace taking over from the current board.
That vote will come a week before that group, known as the Transportation Economic Development group (or TED, though it is sometimes called the Policy Leadership group) meets for the first time since Merrill dropped the bombshell in late May that it should take over for HART and be the main transit agency making decisions as the county prepares for another tax referendum in 2016.
Although the HART board's unanimous vote to decide on their own future came with only seven members present towards the conclusion of the meeting, a quick reading of the tea leaves makes it sound like the majority is not in favor of such a change.
HART board chair Mike Suarez, who has been outspoken in disagreeing with the idea, said that as far as he knows the TED group doesn't have the legal authority to make a change, a notion on which HART attorney David Smith did weigh in.
"I am very reluctant to proceed with road and bridge money [mixing] with transit money, that just is not going to work," offered board member Fran Davin. Referring to her experience as a Tampa City Council member, Hillsborough County Commissioner and board member of HART, she said she knows that "you cannot mix road and bridge money with transit money."
But interestingly, County Commissioners and HART board members Kevin Beckner and Sandy Murman said exactly the opposite, saying they both believed "transit" means both buses, streetcars (and possibly rail) and roads. "It’s a matter of repurposing what were doing. It was a no-brainer to chose HART as lead agency," Beckner said about Merrill's proposal, which he supports.
So does Murman, and so does the third member of the HART board who also serves on the County Commission, Mark Sharpe.
Since the announcement by Merrill in late May that the TED group wants to take over HART, it has taken the summer off, with their next meeting scheduled for August 12. That's when they are expected to unveil the completion of more than a year's work on their ideas for improving transportation going forward. But there has been radio silence about the idea of reconfiguring HART.
HART attorney David Smith acknowledged that he has not attended any of the TED meetings, saying, "I could not tell you what the articulating vision is — there seems to be some uncertainty there."
Earlier, two members of the public weighed in on the proposed reconfiguring of the agency.
"It's fundamentally wrong," said Ken Roberts with Citizens Organized for Sound Transportation (COST). "It disintegrates the best public agency in the area. He also called it a "naked grab to HART's access to funds" and "a hostile takeover."
Calling the change in the composition of the board "much more complex" than Merrill has laid out so far, COST's Sharon Calvert said a reconfiguration of the board wasn't in the best interests of HART's customers.
Davin said that with the consensus being that the County Commission was poised to put another transit tax referendum on the 2016 ballot to pay for more buses and possibly light rail, the last thing it needed to do was create confusion before the public. "How are we going to convince the people of this county to have faith and go ahead an approve a well thought-out plan for better transit?" she mused.
Meanwhile, the board unanimously voted on a motion to make a request to the Hillsborough County Commission for at least $500,000 to help the transit agency with planning. The motion came from Commissioner Mark Sharpe, and followed a statement made by Connect Tampa Bay Executive Director Kevin Thurman suggesting that HART take the lead in moving transportation planning forward. The motion also includes asking the County's Metropolitan Planning Organization to kick in funds for planning as well.
"Take the lead," Thurman implored on the board during the public comment portion of the meeting.
Initially, the request was met with resistance from County Commissioner Sandy Murman, who said that money had already been earmarked to the Transportation Economic Development (also known as the Policy Leadership Group) for outreach planning. That's the group consisting of County Commissioners and the mayors of Tampa, Plant City and Temple Terrace that county administrator Mike Merrill called for in May to take over the existing HART board.
"This has nothing to do with the Policy Leadership Group," HART board chairman Mike Suarez told Murman, while Commissioner Sharpe added that the Policy Leadership Group didn't have the expertise to do such work.
In fact, HART has not had a planner since Mary Shevalier left the agency a couple of years ago.