HART Board gives CEO raise, mulls Pinellas transit aspirations

12/06/10 Kate Bradshaw
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In the wake of last month’s election, the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority has a new makeup – including Sandy Murman, a freshly-elected Republican County Commissioner. How this will affect the organization’s transit plan has yet to be seen, but rail continues to factor in as the board looks to the future.

It was one of the HART board’s slimmest agendas in recent memory. The board meets one Monday morning per month at a bleary 8:30 time slot. In the lead-up to last month’s failed transit tax referendum, members of the public wanting to weigh in on HART’s proposed transit overhaul would pack the meeting room. Today only two speak – one for rail, one against. Despite the disagreement, officials are still moving ahead, albeit with a bird’s-eye approach.

"We're there looking at various alignments and so forth to proceed with, which is exactly the process that we had followed."

Board member David Mechanik says Pinellas County is following in Hillsborough’s footsteps as it pursues a transit plan, and has its eye on three key areas: Gateway, St. Pete, and Clearwater.

He says there’s a loose end that needs tying – the fact that there’s a sizable body of water separating the two counties.

Mechanik says the two counties need to agree early on about the type of mass transit they want to span the bridge, given that the different types of rail, such as light rail and commuter rail, have very different structural requirements.

"The structural requirements for the bridge are very different if a rail is crossing the bay as opposed to just cars. And similarly a heavy rail has greater requirements than a light rail as well. I think all of those things are being considered by the DOT."

He says some in Pinellas still believe the proposed high speed rail line slated to run between Tampa and Orlando should go all the way to Pinellas, but that it’s far from consensus among that county’s transit officials.

"Every one here realizes that one of our choices would be to put light rail in the interstate alignment and I asked them 'are you all concerned about that?' because that would probably preclude any option for high speed rail. The response or if you will, the consensus from the folks there is that the Pinellas people are more interested in a rail connection but they're not realistically thinking about high speed rail. So they were not concerned about us making a decision to put light rail in the interstate alignment."

Fran Davin, the board’s vice chair, says is the two counties are serious about coordinating their transit infrastructure, they’d better get a move on.

"Coming down now from New Tampa all the time, I have to deal with the three lanes down to two at Fletcher and Fowler which forms a funnel and then you come back out into three lanes again and it was because there wasn't early coordination on that and it's just a nightmare. I would hate to see us have a pathway on the Hillsborough side for the north side of the freeway and have people on the other side of the bay looking at the south side. That's not going to work."

The Florida Department of Transportation is planning to replace the Howard Frankland Bridge in the near future. Elba Lopez, FDOT’s public transit administrator, says the department is keeping connectivity between the two counties in mind as it undergoes the project.

"We are working on the entire Howard Frankland Bridge. We have a consultant here ... for the Howard Frankland Bridge. We are undertaking all of those considerations, both what is happening on the Hillsborough side and what is happening on the Pinellas side both [alternative analyses]. There will be conversations in the very near future with all of the stakeholders, major stakeholders, having to do with both technology and the alternatives that are being undertaken on both sides. So, yes, all of these things are under consideration."

The board doesn’t discuss how either county’s transit overhaul would be funded. Given that voters in Hillsborough recently rejected a penny per dollar sales tax increase that would have funded that county’s transit remake, officials are looking at new ways to fund the multi-decade project. Hillsborough County Commission Chair Al Higginbotham, who was a vocal opponent of the transit tax, has said he wants to look for a way to fund rail that wouldn’t burden taxpayers. But the economy does manage to creep into one discussion at today’s meeting. It shows up in the form of the question of whether to give HART CEO David Armijo a pay raise and bonus. Board member Michael York says HART’s successes, including record bus ridership, warrant them.

"Mr. Armijo's performance over the last two years warranted a merit increase just like rest of the HART employees and also a performance bonus was due."

Armijo reportedly forfeited an end-of-year bonus last year, and, citing the economy, the board voted against giving him a raise. Today it grants him both by way of approving his annual evaluation, which is, for the most part, glowing. He will now be making $185,000 annually. Those holding his title in comparable markets often make more than $200,000 a year. The one dissenting board member is Curtis Stokes, who is also a Tampa City Council member. He says to reward the executive without recognizing those on HART’s lower rungs would be unfair.

"I wouldn't deny Mr. Armijo has done a wonderful job as CEO of HART, but it's hard when the very least of HART employees, the bus drivers haven't had a raise in a few years, it's hard to justify a ten per cent increase, a six per cent increase on top of that, especially when guys that are making $9 an hour driving buses around town all day, it's hard to justify that."

A HART spokesperson says bus operators earned an average of $17.10 in 2010. Today the HART board also elected Alison Hewitt as its new chair. The next HART Board meeting is January Third. Board Member David Mechanik says the board also expects to have an intensive discussion of HART’s alternatives analysis some time in the next six weeks.

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