HART board nearly kills rail study

05/02/11 Kate Bradshaw
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Exactly six months ago today, Hillsborough County voters turned down a transit overhaul that a hike in the sales tax would have funded. Since then, efforts to amp up local public transit have faced several political road blocks. The county’s transit board came close to dealing a fatal blow to the county’s fledgling plan to amp up its public transit system – something many hoped to do by building light rail.

A year ago, County Commissioner and Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Board member Mark Sharpe was one of light rail’s most ardent proponents. Then voters resoundingly rejected a sales tax boost for the sake of a sweeping, multi-decade transit fix that would have included, among other things, light rail. The county’s transit agency has continued to hammer out the plan’s details. Today, Sharpe said that project needs to stop.

HART senior planner Mary Shevalier said since summer of 2009, the Alternatives Analysis has cost the agency nearly two million dollars. The study is a mandatory step if the county wants federal matching dollars for major transit projects like rail or bus rapid transit. Some board members said spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to study a project that’s still years out would appear frivolous to an already cynical electorate. County Commissioner and HART Board member Sandy Murman said agency funds are badly needed for HART’s basic functioning.

On the other hand Commissioner and Board member Kevin Beckner said the board shouldn’t refrain from looking into rail for the coming decades, since widening roads won’t always be the solution for traffic on Tampa Bay’s roads.

The transit tax referendum failure isn’t the only thing bogging down HART’s pursuit of rail or full-fledged bus rapid transit. Many officials, including Commissioner Sharpe, had seen the proposed high speed rail line connecting Tampa to Orlando as a key argument for light rail and enhanced buses – but the governor trashed that project. Then, last month, the HART board voted to fire CEO David Armijo amid whistleblower claims of unfair HR practices. And because of a funding squeeze, the bus line had to slim down parts of its route schedule. Sharpe said stopping the AA would help the agency focus all its energy on getting back on track.

After dismissing Armijo, the board chose HART chief of maintenance and facilities Philip Hale for interim CEO. He said while the project is still moving forward, he’s concerned about funding.

Instead of shelving the project completely, Commissioner Beckner called for a more tempered approach.

Commissioner Sharpe proposed an immediate suspension of the AA project, but it didn’t get the approval of his fellow board members. Beckner’s counter proposal – which is to study what the project would cost and gather as much information as possible before killing the project outright – did, but along a slim 6-5 margin. The board will hear the outcome of that study at a future meeting. Meanwhile, HART is continuting to move forward on MetroRapid, a lighter version of Bus Rapid Transit. That project is slated to start operating in early 2013.

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