TAMPA — The writing is on the wall for the board that runs the HART public bus system.
On Tuesday, Hillsborough County commissioners began a carefully planned move to dismantle the 13-member HART board and fill it with elected officials who agree with the commission’s vision for transportation. By a 5-1 vote, they added Commissioner Les Miller to the HART board to replace Anne Madden, a small businesswoman from Ruskin who recently resigned.
The addition of a fourth commissioner to the HART board is part of a larger strategy approved by commissioners and the county’s three mayors to remake the bus system into a super agency that oversees all new city and county transportation projects.
That strategy was reiterated Tuesday morning by County Administrator Mike Merrill when he laid out recommendations to remake the county’s transportation system into an “integrated mobility system.” The plan is to be financed by a 1 cent sales tax increase that will go before voters in 2016.
Merrill gave reporters a report based on a study by the consulting company Booz Allen Hamilton that laid out reasons why HART should be responsible for all new transportation projects, including roads and light rail.
One of the points the consultants made was that “governance and financing are so closely inter-related, they must be addressed together.”
Now that the mayors and commissioners have made their intentions known, the question remains whether the HART board will go along. HART chairman Mike Suarez said there will be a vote at Monday’s board meeting on the proposed changes after a public discussion. Suarez, though not revealing how he will vote, has voiced misgivings about the plan at meetings of the county’s transportation policy leadership group, which consists of the mayors, the commissioners and the HART chair.
Other HART board members have also expressed misgivings. Josh Burgin, one of two members chosen by the governor, called the policy board’s strategy “an enormous power grab by the county.”
Bryan Crino, whose appointment to the HART board as a Tampa city representative runs through Jan. 29, said he finds the whole discussion of transforming HART into a broader transit authority “a bit tricky.”
“I do like the idea of citizens being part of the HART board, but at the same time, I like the idea of people who are knowledgeable and generally elected by the citizens serving on the board,” said Crino, president of Skyway Capital Partners, an investment banking firm.
Crino said he favors the “bigger picture agenda” of an all-encompassing transportation agency, but he’s unsure if roads would be a good fit.
“It has always made sense that the same agency runs buses and alternative modes of transportation, like commuter rail and ferry,” Crino said. “From an integrated transportation perspective, that makes sense.”
Karen Jaroch, whose term on the HART board ends Oct. 31, said she opposes converting its membership to mostly elected officials or enlarging the agency’s scope of responsibility. She said the board needs members with diverse skills and backgrounds such as Crino, a financier, and Steven Polzin, director of mobility research at the University of South Florida’s Center for Urban Transportation Research.
Jaroch, who chairs HART’s finance committee, said busy county commissioners and city council members won’t have the time to delve into complicated and data-heavy transit issues, especially if the agency’s work load expands significantly.
“I think this model has worked: HART is one of the best transit agencies in the country,” said Jaroch, who is an a engineer. “Expanding the scope, and putting all elected (members) on there that don’t have the time to commit to that, I think is a mistake.”
Also opposing the policy group’s plans is County Commissioner Victor Crist, the one no-vote on Miller’s nomination to the HART board. Crist said he didn’t know Commissioner Sandy Murman planned to put Miller’s name in the mix, so he countered by proposing Sharon Calvert, founder of the Tampa Tea Party, for the open board position. Calvert was one of the leaders of the opposition the last time a sales tax hike was proposed for transportation projects in 2010.
“I had to pull a rabbit out of my hat,” Crist said of his nominating Calvert. “She’s one person who has an interest and understands’’ transportation.
Crist, who has served on the transportation policy board with the other commissioners for the last 14 months, said he opposes the projects put forward by Merrill on Tuesday and is against holding a tax referendum in 2016. Crist noted that the price tag on the list of projects Merrill presented far exceeds the $3 billion the sales tax increase would generate over 30 years. Merrill said the list will be downsized by the policy board after it hears from the public in a series of meetings later this year.
“I look at these numbers and I’m not comfortable with them,” Crist said. “It’s too lofty, too broad, and based on too many uncertainties for the voters to support it.”
Crist, a Republican, denied that his sudden, vocal opposition to the transportation plan has anything to do with the election challenge he faces in November from Democrat Elizabeth Belcher.
Other commissioners remain adamant that a re-engineered HART that oversees multi-million-dollar projects must be accountable to the people.
“We’re talking about changing the (HART) board because we’re talking about creating an agency that has significantly more money to spend with greater responsibility,” said Commissioner Mark Sharpe, who sits on the HART board. “So you want people serving on that board who are directly accountable to our citizens.”
The Hart board will meet Monday at 9 a.m. at the agency’s administrative office, 1201 E. Seventh Ave., third floor, Florida Conference Room.