HART On The Move Toward Better Transit

01/04/10 Concetta DeLuco
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The drive for major transportation changes in Hillsborough County continues to progress. At the Hillsborough County Transit Authority (HART) meeting this morning, members evaluated the progress of the county’s transit plans and the next move for Hillsborough.

Over the past few months, Hillsborough County has picked up speed on the move toward major transportation reform. Such changes include talks of transit improvements like better bus systems and a light rail and non-transit upgrades like pedestrian-friendly streets and road repairs.

In this morning’s meeting, board members discussed the status of the alternative analysis process, a planning study which began last June. It is one of the first steps in the development of the county’s comprehensive transit plans. David Armijo is the CEO of HART. He is anticipating the alternative analysis to be completed soon.

The alternative analysis is one of the first steps of the transit project. It considers possible light rail and bus station locations, transit oriented development around the stations and making the stations accessible to the public. It also identifies “corridors” or routes throughout Hillsborough that will receive the transportation changes.

Right now, there are 11 potential “corridors.” The Northwest corridor, for example, would better connect USF to downtown Tampa. Mary Shavalier is HART’s Chief of Planning and Program Development. She said the extent of the transportation changes in each corridor depends on its individual needs.

In early December, the Hillsborough Board of County Commissioners voted to place a one cent sales tax referendum on the 2010 ballot. If passed, the revenue from the tax will fund the proposed transit and non-transit improvements. When Shavalier was questioned by a board member about how the project would be affected if voters did not pass the tax, Armijo jumped in and said he was not worried.

In 2002, HART adopted the Tampa Rail Project. It promised very similar transportation changes to today’s plan. HART had sought federal funding for the 2002 project through the FTA’s New Starts grant program. New Starts requires regions to complete an alternative analysis and have a local funding commitment prior to receiving federal aid.

However, the project stopped short when local funding could not be found. County Commissioner, Mark Sharpe has been a staunch supporter of the penny referendum. He is less optimistic than Armijo about the local transit project if voter’s reject the sales tax in November.

Lack of local funding can cost Tampa local transit projects, Sharpe said, as well as state wide projects, like the high speed rail. Florida has applied for part of the $8 billion of the stimulus money allotted for a bullet train to connect Tampa to Orlando.

Yet, earlier this year, Secretary of the Department of Transportation Ray LaHood recommended Florida first fund light rail systems before competing for federal funds. Sharpe agrees.

Armijo said the next step after the alternative analysis is preliminary engineering which takes a few years. Local funding is very important, but the project won’t stop if it is not secured.

In light of the flexibility of the developing transit plan, concern was raised by the board members about what definite information they could present to people to encourage them to vote for the tax. Armijo referred to the first two corridors, the Northeast and West that are currently being planned.

The HART board of Directors will begin the budget project within the next month and by June will determine whether it is feasible to move into the next phase of the project, preliminary engineering.

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