Tuesday, July 22, 2014

HART Board Raises Concerns About MPO's Rail Plan and Proposed Restructuring

At yesterday's HART Board meeting, the Board raised concerns about the MPO's Downtown rail plan and the proposed restructuring of HART.  The meeting was interesting, informative and three hours long. For transparency, I was there and made a public comment regarding the MPO presentation that was going to be made and the proposed HART restructuring.  

Rich Clarendon, from the Hillsborough MPO, presented a study called Downtown Transit Assets and Opportunities.  This study was driven by the Downtown Partnership, a special interest group. Some other partners who participated were the city of Tampa, FDOT, HART and the Historic Streetcar Board. It is not clear at this time whether the Downtown Partnership or the MPO paid for the study.

The study's intent was to build on assets we have in the urban core to serve populations who have not used transit and look at where we have under-utilized existing rail lines. I was very surprised to see what was proposed.

Every single map of the Systems Alternatives in this study showed rail. All of the rail lines go far beyond the area considered downtown. Many of the rail lines reflected CSX lines. There has been no negotiation with CSX.  In the past there have been numerous issues and additional costs associated with acquiring CSX lines. The goal of this plan is a core system of fixed guideways of premium transit from Westshore to USF.  The routes looked much like those from the 2010 referendum.
MPO Downtown Transit study rail lines
The study also included some rubber-wheeled options, expanding circulator services.  One of the MPO's goals and objectives was to find “lower cost options”.  We know there are lower cost options than rail.  The goals should be to find cost-effective, efficient and flexible transportation options.  

Another MPO goal was to identify projects for their 2040 Long Range Transportation Plan and for HART's 10 year Transit Development Plan (TDP). That is a bit confusing since HART has a vetted and approved 10 year TDP.  

The biggest immediate goal must be to find a revenue source for the streetcar that is bankrupt.  Perhaps that issue should be addressed first.

Hillsborough county has multiple dispersed work centers and our downtown is relatively small compared to comparably sized counties.  If this downtown plan was pursued, what happens to transportation solutions for the rest of the county?  Currently, the city of Tampa has a majority of HART's services but the growth is occurring in the county and that growth will continue.  Look at the growth happening in South County.  HART's TDP, if funded, would double our bus service and could probably be fully implemented in the next decade without using federal money.

There was much discussion and also concern about how this plan would integrate into what the county Transportation Policy Leadership Group is doing. There was agreement that coordination is needed but also lots of questions.  Does this duplicate any part of the TDP?  The land development charts appeared duplicative of what came out of the Economic Prosperity Stakeholder Committee and the Transportation Policy Leadership Group. Does the rail overlay with existing bus service?  What are the ridership projections? Demand needs must be done. Lots more data is needed to fully digest all the alternatives before committing to such plan.

We wonder if the Tribune thinks differently. The Tribune print version is disingenuously titled "HART board rejects MPO's transit growth plan." Does the Tribune think a simple presentation by the MPO of a few charts outlining various rail lines with little data to back up their proposal is reason enough for the HART board to include in their plans? Remember NO negotiations have been done with CSX and CSX lines were all over this plan. 
Instead of giving that plan the nod (emphasis mine), the HART board voted to ask Hillsborough for funding to hire a specialized planner that can look at all transit needs throughout the county.
Why would the HART Board give this plan a nod? 

The rest of this meeting was centered around the Transportation Policy Leadership Group's proposed restructuring of the HART board. The Board may vote at their next meeting, August 4th, whether to support or not support the proposal.  The Tribune article completely neglects reporting on this issue.  Why?

The proposal to restructure, repurpose and super size HART with an expanded mission was voted on by the Policy Leadership Group without getting a legal opinion from the Hillsborough County Attorney's office. The County Attorney only provided legal considerations for Governance to the group the day the Policy Leadership Group voted on the proposal, not a legal opinion on transforming HART.  That brings up a big question why the Policy Leadership Group would vote to move forward without first requesting a legal opinion from the County Attorney. Who's to blame for not doing that?

The HART Board attorney did provide a memorandum which indicates the proposed change appears more complex than what County Administrator Mike Merrill inferred.  The proposed change is of a magnitude requiring much more than a simple configuration. One of the biggest issues with the proposal is that HART does not do roads and is not authorized to do roads. HART should not do roads and HART board member Fran Davin expounded on that at this meeting.  A separate entity must manage our roads.  
HART Board Powers and Purposes
Transit, of course, is at the "heart" of HART.  What was decided by the board was HART needs the ability to do longer term planning.  They agreed to pursue dollars from the county/MPO for the capacity to do longer range plans. Interim CEO Katherine Eagan estimated HART would need approximately $500K to do this type of planning. MPO is a planning agency so helping to provide funding for transit planning makes sense.  

It's still not clear exactly where this planning money will be coming from to HART, from the county or from the MPO or both.  Commissioner Sharpe, Chairman of the County Commission indicated that the county could provide the $500K to HART.  

What is interesting is the County is in its new fiscal year budget process. The proposed transportation budget for FY2015 reflects a total of $6.5 million for roads next year.  That's basically our local gas tax dollars and that's it - no Community Investment Tax money available for roads. 
County Road Budget
The National Association of Counties website states that "construction/maintaining local roads is one of a counties prime duties". Hillsborough County's road money has run dry and it appears nothing has been done by our commissioners to re-prioritize funding to our roads. 

However, Commissioner Sharpe can find a half million dollars to re-prioritize to give to HART for transit planning.  Shouldn't Sharpe, who is also Chairman of the MPO, first ask the MPO that is a planning agency, to assist with providing the planning funds?

The word to watch was Referendum and Commissioner Sharpe stated that "when we have a Referendum" we need to have a battle tested plan. The MPO rail plan, pushed by the Downtown Partnership, was not battle tested nor ready for Prime Time.

Dr. Polzin made the best suggestion of the day - put some bus service in and see if they are successful.

Now that sounds like a real plan and one that actually gets something done.

Sharon Calvert

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