Hillsborough County leaders are drawing up plans to remake the HART bus system into an expansive agency that can oversee construction of countywide transportation projects and spur economic development.
Changes being contemplated for the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority include a larger board with expertise in economic development and the authority to build roads and rail and create new bus routes.
There’s one problem: The new chairman of the 13-member HART board, Tampa City Councilman Mike Suarez, opposes the plan.
“I think they are complicating things a little bit by looking at the governance of HART,” said Suarez, who took the chairman’s seat Jan. 1.
Most transit agencies around the country have no role in economic development, Suarez said, unless it is transit-oriented development — working with cities and private companies to develop land along transit corridors and around bus and rail stations.
“HART does not have a well-developed division that deals with that kind of development,” Suarez added.
But the move to remake HART has powerful political backers, including Tampa Mayor Buckhorn and several county commissioners. They all sit on a transportation policy group charged with choosing major transportation projects that can both move people efficiently and stoke the local economy.
Last week, the policy group discussed what agency should build and operate new transportation projects. County Commissioners Kevin Beckner, Mark Sharpe and Sandy Murman all nominated HART, saying it is the only transportation agency with the ability to tax and accept federal grants and is guided by a board including elected officials. Beckner, Sharpe and Murman also sit on the HART board.
“When you’re talking about transportation, for me it’s logical to think HART,” Beckner said. “Why would you recreate the wheel and create a whole new agency.”
Other policy board members agreed with Beckner that the county doesn’t need a new agency, but they weren’t ready to give unconditional support for HART.
How the transit agency would be reworked to include an economic development and construction management role is still unclear. The policy group charged County Administrator Mike Merrill and County Attorney Chip Fletcher with developing recommendations.
“We’re making the assumption that the projects the leadership policy group will probably select are bus, some rail, some roads, trails and bike paths,” Merrill said. “If all those projects were handed to HART to implement, they would have to change their scope to do that.”
Fletcher, the county attorney, said HART was formed through an interlocal agreement between the county and the cities of Tampa and Temple Terrace. But state law describes the agency’s scope of services. To change that element would require action by the state Legislature.
As for the makeup of the HART board, Fletcher said some changes could be handled locally, such as requiring more elected officials on the board. Several members of the transportation policy group said they would prefer elected officials serve as HART directors because they are covered by the state’s sunshine laws, meaning they could only communictae with each other in public.
Elected officials are also accountable to their constituents, policy group members said.
Kevin Thurman, executive director of the pro-transit group Connect Tampa Bay, said the two gubernatorial appointments on the HART board should be eliminated.
“The governor in Tallahassee has no earthly reason for appointing people to the HART board,” Thurman said. “It’s a county agency focused on just the county. The state already has influence through the money it gives to HART.”
But getting rid of the governor’s appointments would also take legislative action, Fletcher said.
The most outspoken advocate of radically reworking the HART board is also one of the agency’s harshest critics — County Commissioner Mark Sharpe. Sharpe describes the transit system as outmoded, sluggish and unresponsive to customers’ needs.
He said he not only expects HART to implement the transportation policy group’s recommended projects, he also wants the bus agency to embrace modern technologies such as computer applications that pinpoint the location of any bus in the system at any moment.
Fare boxes would be replaced by credit card swipes if Sharpe had his way and HART would be ready when so-called “smart cars” that “talk to the road and each other” take the road.
“For transit to work, we have to have a recharged HART, everything from its governance down to its mission and how it operates,” Sharpe said. “HART is going to have to figure out a way to bring it altogether from the door step to that ultimate destination.”