Transit officials in Hillsborough are trying to get rolling on improvements

02/01/13 Janelle Irwin
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Hillsborough County’s transit agency is looking at ways to revamp its system, mostly by improving services it already offers. At a workshop today, community stakeholders and HART officials laid out different funding options for new projects.

More and more people are ditching their wheels and hopping on buses. According to Jeff Seward, HART’s chief financial officer, ridership is already up 3.5% over last year. That leaves a wide gap in bus service for the county that Seward said could be filled.

“Adding 250 buses to the fleet, several hundred miles of new, local bus routes, addition of 7 express routes, 13 new flex routes and over 70 miles of new fixed guide way MetroRapid service. Again, just as the last scenario we discussed, it would require a new operating facility and we would have extensive capital infrastructure with new bus stops and maintenance needs.”

But that all costs money.

“I’m willing to grow whatever you want me to grow, just bring me some damn money.”

That’s Phillip Hale, HART’s CEO. He and other transit leaders mulled over a host of funding options laid out by CFO Seward. One of them is an additional sales tax up to 1%.

“The estimated $100 million county-wide on an annual basis and what we’re looking at specifically with HART and the scenarios we’ve provided is the half cent scenario which would be, on average, about $7.50 on an average 3 person household in Hillsborough County per month. Coupled with current revenues, this funding source could replace the current ad valorem levy and provide funding for all scenarios and bonding capacity for capital improvement.

There’s also the possibility of a gas tax that would tack on up to 5 cents per gallon at the pump or a property tax hike. Some scenarios would swap one tax for another, but wouldn’t necessarily bring in enough revenue to undertake new projects and still keep the transit agency solvent. But HART board member Steve Polzin said he favored an 1/8 cent sales tax.

“It would basically double – approximately double the local tax revenue invested in transit in this community. Now, there’s not too many public agencies that wouldn’t be ecstatic if somebody talked about doubling the local funding for that particular agency.”

And Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe seemed to agree. He said he wants to look into ways to earn revenue from business along transportation corridors that would benefit from the service.

“So that we’re not just going and looking at whether it’s property taxes which is never popular, gas tax which is not popular, sales tax which I think people seem to like because it also includes visitors and such – what about that?”

And all of this discussion over funding doesn’t even cover multi-modal transit options like light rail and instead only builds on the county’s latest effort to introduce bus rapid transit. Transportation officials in Pinellas have asked their county commission to put a referendum on the 2014 ballot they hope would pay for a transit overhaul including light rail. If Hillsborough ever gets on board with such lofty goals, there are some options.

“We do retain a rail corridor for whatever purpose that may be – maybe BRT, maybe light rail, it could be managed lanes.”

That’s the Florida Department of Transportation’s director of transportation development, Debbie Hunt. She said the agency is looking at all of the county’s interstate systems.

“To see what type of system makes sense and also to see what would be the implementation of that. Obviously you’re going to focus on where you’ve got the greatest number of traffic and then you’re going to continue turning over what you can collect in revenue to then be able to bond and build other facilities.”

Interstate highway improvements could include anything from high occupancy vehicle lanes to pay-per-use express lanes. Sandra Murman, a Hillsborough County Commissioner, said something needs to be done.

“We’re going to continue to grow here and that’s one of my biggest concerns here is that our transit system is not keeping up with the growth.”

Murman added she was concerned that the county was putting more into transit than the city and not getting enough service for their buck. But Tampa City Council member Mike Suarez said the two groups have to work together.

“And that’s why when I read in the newspaper that these guys at HART, they don’t care about a regional system – that’s B.S. That’s totally B.S. The reason why is we don’t have the money to sustain two bus systems with the amount of monies we’re getting in from both bus systems.”

Suarez, who is also a HART board member, added that the bus system has historically catered to lower income people and the agency needs to continue to make sure they are taken care of.

“The service levels have to improve. The service levels have to be better and we have to start thinking about how do we cut down on the number of routes that we have and provide specifically for those people who are riders and then talk about expansion. I think that we lose sight, truly, when we start talking about trying to be everything to everyone.”

HART officials also heard from lobbyists who try to find federal funding for the agency. The new MetroRapid express bus system could benefit from a program called Small Start that provides funding for certain transit services. HART board members were also warned that possible budget cuts facing the federal government could mean cuts to funding.

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Jeff Seward is NOT to be trusted. Seward is a master politician who will say whatever he thinks people want to hear. Additionally, chaos and problems seem to follow Seward wherever he goes. He was the disgraced Chief Financial Officer of the Sarasota County Government who was put on administrative leave and resigned before he could actually be fired amid accusations of improper business dealings. I have no idea how he ever got the job at HART, but I guess it goes to show that it is not your qualifications, it is who you know. For the citizens of Tampa I hope that I am wrong, but Seward is about as sleezy as they get. Check out some of the links below: