Mark Sharpe’s exasperation at the approach to mass transit by the HART board and Chief Executive Officer Philip Hale is not exactly news. He talks about it all the time. I don’t believe I’m too far off by saying Sharpe thinks HART offers 1960 solutions to 21st century gridlock.
In making his case for reform, Sharpe admits he could take some remedial courses in diplomacy. That brings us to today’s issue.
Sharpe, who sits on the board as a representative from the Hillsborough County Commission, apparently was fed a spoonful of sugar by a HART board member following Monday’s regular meeting. That prompted this letter Sharpe sent to the HART board Wednesday.
It referenced “... a heartfelt conversation with a board member I deeply respect who was concerned that my comments about the agency were too critical.”
Fran Davin told me she is the member who started that heartfelt conversation.
“I think you get a lot more done if things are said in a positive manner,” she said.
She added, “I appreciate Mark’s zeal and I’ve always liked him, but releasing that letter might not have been the best idea.”
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The good commissioner, as we know, has been making Sharpe-tongued comments about HART for a long time. If he had his way, he’d bulldoze the entire agency and start from scratch.
As he pointedly said in his letter, “The prevailing management view is that public transit exists primarily to serve the economically disadvantaged. I fundamentally disagree. HART is there to serve 1.2 million residents and 15 million visitors — some are low-income residents, but they are part of a greater whole that comprise our economy.”
Nowhere in the letter, by the way, will you find the word “apology.”
“It’s not an apology by any stretch,” Sharpe told me. “But it is an explanation. I want to change this agency. I will change this agency.”
Well, if you were one of thousands stranded on the Howard Frankland Bridge on Sunday when the Florida Department of Transportation decided it would be a good time to do emergency pothole repairs, you, too, might be fanning the winds of change.
Some drivers were stuck for more than two hours on that expanse of concrete over the waters of Tampa Bay while the repair work took place. I’m guessing more than a few of them would have voted “yes” right then on any transit referendum.
“We must change the perception of HART from the transportation provider of last resort to one that is a desirable choice for residents and visitors,” Sharpe wrote. “This will require retooling the agency into something dramatically different from what it is today.”
To be fair, bus ridership is setting records. HART stays within its budget. However, with Tampa’s population steadily growing and the highways increasingly clogged, Sharpe’s patience for a comprehensive approach has worn thin.
Davin wouldn’t address any of the specifics in Sharpe’s letter, citing advice from the agency’s attorney. But she offered one subtle tweak.
“Our core mission is to provide transportation for those who otherwise don’t have private transportation,” she said.
That transportation doesn’t have to be just buses. It doesn’t mean mass transit is confined to the poorest areas, and everyone else drives to work and the beach. Since Hale is about to retire, that might set a new tone going forward. But if not ...
“There is no way to turn around an agency by being nice,” Sharpe said. “Sometimes, either you have to go or the agency has to change. This might be one case where we have to throw the baby out with the bath water.”