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New plan in the works for transportation

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Empty-handed after defeat of a sales tax increase but with a long list of pending projects still at hand, area transportation planners now are regrouping for another attack on the problem.

And the coming year is likely to produce a lot of crosstalk about issue solutions, opening with transportation authorities, then continuing with interested citizens including South County representatives, eventually involving the efforts of a professional pollster, all during a carefully mapped process.

That process, still taking shape at the Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) arm of Hillsborough’s The Planning Commission, is slated to begin with formation of an inter-agency “working group” in February, according to Beth Alden, MPO planner and its Multi-modal Systems Group Leader.

First efforts to bring the Interagency Working Group together got underway with a January 4 letter from Ray Chiaramonte, MPO Executive Director, to municipal, county, regional and state entities. Concentrated on a “Revisit of Metropolitan Planning Organization 2035 Cost Affordable Long Range Transportation Plan” (LRTP), the letter went to the Cities of Tampa, Plant City and Temple Terrace as well as to the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority, the Tampa/Hillsborough Expressway Authority, Hillsborough Area Regional Transit (HART) and the Florida Department of Transportation. Also included were the Pinellas and Pasco County MPOs plus the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority (TBARTA).

In issuing the working group invitation, the MPO director noted its members’ responsibilities would involve providing oversight, peer review and coordination pertaining to the transportation planning efforts of each “as the MPO moves forward with new strategies and projects for the federally-mandated cost-affordable LRTP.”

Revisiting the 2035 transportation plan, Chiaramonte stated, also will involve review of potential cost reduction strategies, of alternative funding approaches and of focus group research exploring “perceptions of critical transportation issues and acceptable solutions.”

That latter component of the working group’s charge – focused discussion by the focus groups – could begin in March, Alden said. The current MPO concept for revisiting and resolving the thorny transportation issues rests on development of a series of transportation related questions by the working group which then can be suggested for exploration by focus groups of interested citizens brought together in at least eight meetings around the county, including South Hillsborough, she added. The concept also involves use of a professional pollster to collect, review and, ultimately, to report citizens’ responses to the questions posed along with what the responses signal.

And of what use will the information be that is produced through the focus groups and crunched by the pollster? That depends largely on content of the research, she noted. “It could,” Alden added, “take us in several directions.”

Any of them, though, probably will have to involve finding significant sums of money to pay for continuing current and initiating new projects on the 2035 plan. Transportation authorities had been hopeful that a one-penny sales tax increase proposed by referendum on the November, 2010, election ballot would produce funding measured in millions of dollars, sufficient to sustain and to begin a long list of public transit and roadway transportation projects in the coming years. Several of those projects were promised in the South County, including enhanced bus service, reworked interstate exit/entrance ramps near Gibsonton and Apollo Beach plus biking routes.

A majority of voters, however, rejected the sales tax increase, citing at various times their distaste for a commuter rail project from the university district in Tampa to the Westshore area of Tampa, their dislike of a tax increase during an economic recession and their distrust of a proposal not fully outlined.

Exact meeting dates, locations and composition of the focus groups have not yet been pinned down, Alden said. The Inter-Agency Working Group, once established, is to reconvene every other month throughout 2011.

Copyright 2011 Melody Jameson
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