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Thursday, Jul 27, 2017
Transportation

HART: $30 million in sales tax money would help with traffic big-time

When the county’s transit authority rolls out its 10-year development plan in coming weeks, the agency will make a clear distinction between what would be available with the existing budget and what could be offered with an extra $30 million a year.

For months, officials from the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority board have attended a series of public meetings on how to solve the problem of gridlock on the county’s roadways, including how transit fits into the equation. The county’s transportation committee - made up of Hillsborough County commissioners and local mayors - has voted to place a referendum on the November 2017 ballot for a half cent sales tax increase to fund transportation improvements.

If the referendum passes, a quarter of that money, or about $30 million annually, would go to HART.

That makes this update of the transit development plan unique, said HART CEO Katharine Eagan, and is why the agency is conducting a series of meetings designed to ensure the plan addresses the transportation issues most important to the public. The HART board got its first look Monday at an update for the transit plan before it goes to the public for review.

The meetings, which begin Thursday, also will serve as a way to make voters aware of what they’ll get with a typical 5 percent budget increase every year versus what the system could be with that new infusion of tax money.

“Some of the things we heard is a perception that the current system is limited, inadequate and under-funded, and a theme to redesign transit to include true commuter express service and park and ride service that could be more relevant to someone’s commute,” said Marco Sandusky, senior manager of equal employment opportunities and community programs for HART.

“We heard a lot about solution-oriented transit,” he said. “People would come up to us and say they really want to ride transit, but they don’t want to ride the bus. People asked us to look for solutions.”

One solution could be smaller vehicles like vans, and partnerships with private companies to supplement door-to-door service, he said.

Over a 10-year period, with “status quo funding,” HART plans to improve some of its 23 park and ride lots, improve bus frequency and weekend service and add new van-based routes, including one in New Tampa in 2016. It would also add new circulator bus routes in the South Shore area and new HARTFlex zones, which offer door-to-door van service.

In its “vision plan,” which includes $30 million annually from a half-cent sales tax increase, bus frequency would improve on seven local routes, five new HARTFlex zones would come on line and service to MacDill Air Force Base would improve, Sandusky said.

Hillsborough County would get three new MetroRapid routes - routes on which buses make few stops - and six new local routes, including one from FishHawk Ranch in eastern Hillsborough County, one from Lithia Pinecrest Road and Bloomingdale Avenue in Brandon to downtown Tampa and one from Brandon to the University of South Florida, among others; and HART would consolidate its smaller park and ride lots to create seven regional lots.

Under the plan with the extra money from the sales tax, HART would add nine HARTFlex zones; nine commuter express routes, satellite maintenance yards and purchase more buses and vans, Sandusky said.

“This plan is not done,” he said. “It’s very important we have integrated input from those 36 meetings. We want to hear what people think.”

Eagan noted that the overall county transportation plan could also include a modernized streetcar in downtown Tampa and Bus Rapid Transit routes in the county, where buses travel in exclusive lanes to avoid traffic.

Eagan said it is critical that whatever HART plans, it meshes with the overall county transportation plan.

“This is one of the most important documents I’ve held sitting on the HART Board,’’ said HART Commissioner John Melendez . “It is a leadership document that allows us to go out and say HART is articulating what it can do with the status quo and what it can do if there is a referendum passed. People need to make an informed vote.”

The most important part of the conversation is for voters to know that without new funding, the transportation issue remains in gridlock, said County Commission Chair Sandy Murman, who sits on the HART Board. “Because that’s what happens if we don’t go forward.”

To see a complete list of public meetings scheduled through Labor Day, go to www.gohart.org.

yhammett@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7127

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