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Hillsborough to gather public input on transportation

— After a four-month delay, Hillsborough County is finally ready to start gathering public opinion about the county’s transportation future.

It will be a massive undertaking, consisting of 28 public meetings where residents can talk about what transportation improvements are needed in their communities or along their commutes. Four of the town hall meetings will be over the phone. Residents also will be able to comment via email and social media.

The public outreach effort was supposed to start in September but was delayed because county commissioners decided to hire transportation consultants Parsons Brinckerhoff to develop a list of projects and their estimated costs. County leaders hope the outreach program will garner crucial public buy-in for a transportation package funded by a new or increased tax.

“We’re going to listen to the community; learn what their needs are,” said George Walton, executive vice president of Parsons Brinckerhoff. “Then, (ask) what are the tools and techniques to address that problem? That’s where our technical expertise comes in.”

The whole exercise will take eight to 10 weeks in February, March and April and cost about $280,000. When it’s finished, Parsons Brinckerhoff will translate the information from the public into a package of projects totaling billions of dollars. They will likely include sidewalks, roads, trails and buses.

A light rail system has also been discussed although some leaders think a rail proposal might be too costly and mobilize opposition to the package.

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The meetings will be a two-way street, with consultants and county officials mostly listening but also providing facts and figures when needed, said Beth Leytham, a Tampa public relations executive hired by Parsons Brinckerhoff to handle communications.

Rather than simply taking comments and writing them down, Leytham said, the meetings will be more like workshops.

“We’re trying to do it thoughtfully so it’s not the same-old, same-old,” Leytham said. “We want it to be meaningful, to help folks participate so they feel like they rolled up their sleeves and had their say.”

The county will be divided into eight districts with a town hall meeting planned for each, Leytham said. Telephone and digital meetings also are scheduled to draw more comments and feedback.

The eight original districts will be consolidated into four larger geographic regions for workshops based on the findings from the first meetings.

The results will be analyzed by Parsons Brinckerhoff, which will produce an “Issues and Opportunities” report. With that information as groundwork, another set of meetings will be held using the 8-4 district format.

“We’ll have full boat load of social media,” Leytham said. “If you wake up and can’t sleep at night … you can go on and give a thought online.”

The county hired Parsons Brinckerhoff for nearly $900,000 to come up with a transportation package that a majority of county residents will support and vote to finance. County leaders say they chose the firm based in part on its past success in designing transportation plans that won approval from voters in other states.

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The contract has come under criticism from Tampa tea party founder Sharon Calvert, who said it should have been put out for bids. Instead, Parsons Brinckerhoff was chosen from a list of companies used by the county’s Public Works department.

“How do we know we’re getting the best deal?” Calvert asked. “Parsons is a global firm, and we’re paying the Parsons’ rate.”

Calvert also faulted language that recommends hiring the firm for “transportation referendum support,” even though the county commission has not voted to put a transportation tax on the 2016 ballot. Mentioning a referendum in the company’s scope of work, Calvert said, amounted to “politicizing” the public outreach effort that Parsons Brinckerhoff will supervise.

“I can understand a transportation initiative or transportation plan, but a referendum is political,” Calvert said.

County Administrator Mike Merrill said the contract with Parsons was reviewed and cleared by the county attorney and the clerk of court’s office, which serves as comptroller to the county government.

As for mentioning a referendum in the company’s scope of work, Merrill said it doesn’t mean the county or Parsons Brinckerhoff is pre-supposing a tax increase will go on the ballot. But a sales tax increase is one commonly used method of paying for transportation and mass transit projects, and it requires a public vote, he said.

“While there are some options for new revenues, the most reliable and the most equitable is a sales tax,” Merrill said. “There is absolutely no disagreement with that, and there’s plenty of evidence to show that’s a fact.”

A sales tax increase is a tough sell. The last time the county tried to raise the tax by a penny per dollar for transportation was in 2010, and it was soundly rejected by voters. In November, Pinellas County voters defeated a transportation tax by a 62-38 percent margin.

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One challenge to passing such a tax is that many Hillsborough residents aren’t convinced the county needs more money to do the work.

Merrill, who has addressed more than 30 business, homeowners’ and civic groups since September, said he is frequently asked why the county doesn’t have enough money with current taxes to pave and widen roads and increase bus service.

This year, commissioners will have about $44 million in additional dollars to spend in the fiscal 2016 budget thanks to a recovering economy. But the increase in revenues pales in comparison to the county’s estimated $8 billion in unfunded transportation needs.

“If the community, after all the outreach and all the decisions wants a robust and aggressive transportation solution, we don’t have the revenues to do it, and we will have to get some new revenue source,” Merrill said.

The perception that the county has all the money it needs is widespread. That’s why Merrill has asked county commissioners to delay a decision on how to pay for the transportation package until the commission concludes its 2016 budget deliberations in late summer.

Merrill said the budget workshops should clarify for many people why the county needs additional revenue to fund billions of dollars in road and bridge work, more public buses and perhaps, a light rail system.

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Before a referendum can go on the ballot, a majority of commissioners must support it. The newest commissioner, District 4’s Stacy White, said he is against a sales tax increase.

District 7 Commissioner Al Higginbotham pledged during his re-election campaign last year to support whatever transportation package is finally approved by the county’s Transportation Policy Leadership Group. That group, composed of county commissioners, the county’s three mayors and the chairman of the HART bus system, has been meeting since the summer of 2013.

But Higginbotham said Monday he doesn’t think Hillsborough voters will approve a tax — any tax.

District 2 Commissioner Victor Crist said he might support a sales tax referendum, but only if the proceeds go toward a sensible, affordable list of transportation projects.

“I need to see a well-thought-out plan that is narrowed down to specifics of what will be necessary to fix our transportation needs in the short- and long-term,” Crist said. “I don’t want something that’s haphazardly thrown together.”

The rest of the commissioners have indicated in past meetings they would support putting a tax on the ballot if that’s what the Transportation Policy Leadership group ultimately decides.

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