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Wednesday, Aug 23, 2017
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To merge or not to merge Tampa Bay's planning groups? That is the transportation question

TAMPA — The business community has been touting a regional planning group as part of the solution to Tampa Bay's transportation woes.

But not everyone is on board — including one of Hillsborough's most trusted voices on transportation.

Beth Alden, the executive director of Hillsborough's Metropolitan Planning Organization, has some serious hangups about merging the area's individual county MPOs — each has a federally-mandated authority that plans local transportation projects — into one regional group.

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To do so, Alden said, would cause more problems without providing substantial solutions. The local MPOs have already planned their most important projects and worked together to identify the top regional projects, for which they have a separate pool of money.

Plus, she said merging MPOs could reduce the number of transportation planners in the area. If anything, the region could benefit from more planners working to solve transportation issues, she said.

"I don't see it as an improvement," Alden said. "They'll do something that's not very meaningful ... and they're going to get rid of the things that are good about the organizations we have."

She's not the only one. Small-government advocates like Barb Haselden, a prominent Pinellas Tea Party activist and opponent of the 2014 Greenlight Pinellas transit referendum, are worried such a move would add an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy while weakening local control.

"Big decisions are being taken away from the people," Haselden said.

But business leaders who support a unified MPO argue that the process is already too provincial, that no one is making decisions for the region as a whole.

That's why business leaders have taken a two-prong approach to set up regional transportation groups:

Tampa Bay Partnership president Rick Homans and other economic development leaders successfully lobbied the Florida Legislature to turn the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority into a group that focuses exclusively on transit.

While the reshaped TBARTA would be able to operate a regional transit line, such as light rail or express bus service, Homans said there's still a void in regional planning. That's where a merged MPO would come in. Business leaders want a regional MPO to execute the planning for that regional transit agency.

"Without a regional entity creating that regional vision, then each MPO ends up putting forward very localized, separate, disconnected transportation projects," Homans said. "That may be the priorities for each of the counties respectively, but when put together, it does not weave anything like a regional transportation system."

Alden disagreed. The county MPOs have been putting forward regional priorities for more than a decade now through a group comprised of MPO chairs from eight counties. The group, known as the Chairs Coordinating Committee, focuses on regional projects that each MPO can list within its own long-term plans.

More importantly, she said, each MPO has part of its budget that is reserved specifically for regional projects.

So the problem isn't the lack of a priority list of projects, she said. There's already a process in place to identify and rank such projects.

"There seems to be this misconception out there that we have not come together and agreed on these regional priorities," Alden said. "Having a regional priority list is only useful if the organization that distributes funding is looking at that list."

Alden's comments were pointed at the Florida Department of Transportation, which pays for many of the projects identified by local MPOs. The state has paid for several highway projects on the coordinating committee's regional list, Alden said, but DOT usually avoids funding transit projects recommended by the MPOs.

But Homans said the regional project lists produced by the coordinating committee and other groups aren't the same as what would come out of a regional MPO. Those organizations don't have the authority to push bigger, regional projects and compel local MPOs to prioritize them in their individual plans, he said.

"It's a very disjointed, dysfunctional transporting planning structure," Homans said of the current system in Tampa Bay. "It's time we grow up as a community to a higher level in terms of creating a vision for us as a region."

A regional MPO, Alden said, would create several problems: it would complicate land use planning, which is done on a county level; citizen involvement would be more difficult, as they'd have to travel further to attend meetings; it would merge agencies, which could mean reducing the number of planners on staff; and it would complicate the coordination with local public works departments, which end up overseeing many of the projects.

And, at the end of the day, Alden said a regional MPO would still need to get the county and city governments on board, which control much of the local dollars for transportation.

Pinellas County MPO executive director Whit Blanton said several of Alden's concerns are valid, such as making sure local projects continue to get funding and that land use is coordinated with each county. However, he thinks those issues can be addressed and that, ultimately, a regional MPO makes a lot of sense for Tampa Bay.

"I think a regional MPO is probably what we need here, but I want to make sure its done right and that it's not done out of impatience," Blanton said. "I think we'd benefit from working together with a larger, well coordinated staff that would be able to take on regional planning."

While there are groups such as the coordinating chairs that currently recommend lists, at the end of the day, Blanton said, it's the individual MPOs sending their priorities to DOT. Being able to send the state one list of asks makes the region a lot more competitive, he said.

Haselden* said a regional MPO would run counter to the purpose of the organization: to give local governments a voice in transportation and help them bring in state and federal dollars. President Donald Trump recently repealed a rule urging areas to merge multiple MPOs into one regional agency.

The initiative passed Congress easily: the U.S. Senate passed it by unanimous consent and the House voted 417-3 in favor. Without that rule in place, Haselden said there's no longer a legal reason for Tampa Bay to pursue such an option.

"There was bipartisan pushback across the board," Haselden said. "People don't want to form these mega regions. They want to keep their own sovereignty."

Contact Caitlin Johnston at cjohnston@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst.

*Editor's note: This story has been updated to use the correct spelling of Barb Haselden's last name.

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