Commissioner Murman mentioned in this Tampa Tribune article on transit:



Go Hillsborough transit supporters lay low until critical vote

By Mike Salinero | Tribune Staff 
November 27, 2015


TAMPA — During the past two months, conservative activists have unleashed an all-out attack on the Go Hillsborough transportation initiative in hopes of blocking a sales tax referendum from going on the ballot in November 2016.


The opponents gained momentum after media reports in September alleged back-door dealing in the hiring of the Go Hillsborough consultant, engineering firm Parsons Brinckerhoff. The reports forced County Administrator Mike Merrill to ask for an investigation by the sheriff’s office. The probe is ongoing but should be done before Christmas, Merrill said.

But while Go Hillsborough opponents have ramped up their criticism, supporters of the transportation plan have been largely silent. At a Nov. 4 county commission meeting, seven people rose during the public comment period demanding that commissioners pull the plug on Go Hillsborough. No one spoke in support.

❖ ❖ ❖

Conspicuous by its absence was Connect Tampa Bay, a pro-transit group that says it has 2,340 members in counties around the bay. It was Connect Tampa Bay’s persistent lobbying several years ago that pushed county commissioners to begin the process that resulted in the Go Hillsborough initiative.


Kevin Thurman, executive director of Connect Tampa Bay, joked that the reason he and other members of the group are not speaking out at commission meetings is because they are winning. He was referring to a recent 8-3 vote by the city-county Policy Leadership Group to move the Go Hillsborough plan forward.

That vote sent the plan to the county commission, which must muster four votes to put a half-cent-per-dollar sales tax on the ballot. If approved, the tax would finance over 400 transportation projects, including new roads, more road maintenance, expanded bus service, bike and running trails and a pilot commuter rail line.

Commissioners will likely vote on the referendum in January after the sheriff’s investigation is through, Merrill said.

The commission’s passage of the ordinance calling for the referendum is not assured. Commissioners, who sit on the Policy Leadership Group, voted 4-3 to advance the plan. Commissioner Sandy Murman, who some observers thought might vote yes, announced her own transportation plan on the eve of the policy group’s vote.

After the board rejected Murman’s plan, she said she would not vote for the sales tax referendum. That left Commissioner Victor Crist as the swing vote. This week, Crist said he was still undecided.

❖ ❖ ❖

Thurman said his members and other transit supporters across the county will show up once the commission holds the decisive public hearings leading up to a vote.


“If there is a big moment where that needs to happen, we’ll outnumber (opponents) 3 to 1 like we always do,” Thurman said.

Merrill, too, predicted that supporters will come out as soon as there are meaningful meetings where their advocacy will count.

“I know once we get past the report on the investigation and begin scheduling the definitive meetings where the commission is going to be voting, that will be the key the supporters have been waiting on to show up,” Merrill said.

Another reason transit advocates haven’t been heard from lately, Thurman said, is that many are focused on fighting plans by the Florida Department of Transportation to put express toll lanes on Interstates 275 and 4 in Tampa and Pinellas County.

Transportation planners say the toll lanes, called Tampa Bay Express or TBX, will ease congestion and give commuters a choice to pay if they want to move more quickly through traffic jams.

Opponents counter that the DOT should be focusing on 21st-century transportation solutions like rail and bus rapid transit instead of more and wider roads.

At a recent public hearing on TBX, more than 30 people who spoke against the lanes also mentioned the need for mass transit, said Phil Compton, an organizing director with the Suncoast Group of the Sierra Club, who was there.

“Everybody there who was against TBX is for transit,” Compton said. “And the thing people want to see is leadership in this community to make it a priority to fund transit at a level like every other major city in the United States.”

❖ ❖ ❖

Business leaders, who have indicated in the past they would support a tax hike for transportation improvements, also have been largely out of sight during the recent offensive by Go Hillsborough opponents. That changed last week, when the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce issued a statement in support of a “transportation investment.”


The statement, though, read as less than definitive. Instead of giving a full-fledged endorsement of the Go Hillsborough project list and the half-cent-per-dollar sales tax, the chamber said transportation improvements “require additional funding sources.”

“The chamber supports the right of the citizens to vote on issues of taxation, including a referendum,” the statement said.

Merrill disagreed with the media criticism, calling the chamber’s statement “courageous and meaningful.”

“When they said they supported the right of the voters to express their support with a referendum, there’s only one referendum and that’s for the sales tax,” Merrill said. “There wasn’t any waffling or lack of clarity.”

Though supportive of the transportation initiative, the chamber waited weeks to issue its statement while opponents hammered Go Hillsborough over the Parsons Brinckerhoff allegations. Public support from the business organization at the height of the frenzy might have stabilized what looked at that time to be a sinking ship.

Asked why the chamber had been so reticent while Go Hillsborough was under attack, president and CEO Bob Rohrlack said the group thought its role was to continue discussing the issue among its membership and with county officials.

Though transportation has always been a chamber priority, Rohrlack said, the organization wanted to stay above the fray until a definite transportation plan and funding mechanism was in place.

“We’re not going to get caught up in the static,” Rohrlack said. “We’re not going to engage in a war of words.”

The chamber and other business groups won’t have that luxury if commissioners approve the sales tax referendum. At that point, the county government is prohibited from participating in the subsequent campaign. As in other similar referendums, it will be up to the business community to raise money to promote the sales tax and lead the campaign.