Discussions continue over the best route to take in planning Pasco County’s transportation future.
A study is underway to examine the pros and cons of creating a Regional Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) that would include Pasco, Pinellas and Hillsborough counties.
By joining forces, the region would have a better chance of attracting federal dollars for large transportation projects, David Gwynn29, secretary of the District 7 Office of the Florida Department of Transportation, has said during public discussions on the issue.
The idea appeals to some who believe it’s the only way to tackle the significant transportation issues facing the Tampa Bay region.
But others worry that creating a Tampa Bay Regional MPO would create problems for smaller jurisdictions, which, theoretically could be overlooked when it comes to prioritizing projects and doling out funds.
Carl Mikyska, executive director the Pasco County Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO), gave an informational presentation on the issue during the Pasco County MPO board’s Aug. 17 meeting.
The Pasco County MPO is the lead transportation planning agency for Pasco County. Its board is made up of elected leaders in Pasco County, Port Richey, New Port Richey, Dade City and Zephyrhills.
Early in the board’s discussion, Mikyska wanted to make something perfectly clear for board members: “One of the misconceptions is that there might be multiple MPOs within the region.
“While we currently have three MPOs (Pasco, Hillsborough and Pinellas), if there was to be a (Tampa Bay) regional MPO, it would take away the individual MPOs.
“So, a piece of dirt may have only one MPO, if you will,” the Pasco MPO executive director said.
One way to address specific needs of individual counties would be to have satellite offices in the counties, or to create a technical advisory committee in each area, so local issues could be brought to the regional board’s attention, he said.
He reiterated: “If there was a regional MPO board, there would not be an individual Pasco (board).”
Setting priorities, sharing funds
Concerns also have been expressed about how the money would be handled, Mikyska said.
“I guess the best correlations I could give you is when you get married. You have two individuals that are both working, you get married. Two incomes in one household.
“The expenditure of funds here, both for planning, as well as construction, would be mixed in with the money for Pinellas, the money for Hillsborough. That pot would be larger. Theoretically, the money in Pasco should not change, but what would change is how that money is distributed,” he said.
The Pasco MPO executive continued: “We have a prioritization process for selecting projects here, one that was customized to the needs of Pasco County. It would then be a regional prioritization process and it may look a bit different.”
For instance, he noted, Pasco has prioritized safety and economic development. It’s not clear how that would shake out if a regional MPO replaces the local board.
While a study is underway to look at the advantages and disadvantages of merging the individual MPOs, there is no mandate for a merger to happen, Mikyska added.
The Legislature has mandated the study, but the state does not have the authority to force a merger, Mikyska said.
“The determination of how the MPO is composed is exclusively in your hands. You cannot be forced into a regional MPO because of the way that the codified federal regulations are written.
“The Legislature does seem to have a strong interest in seeing a regional MPO but they are unable to mandate it. So, the best they can do is mandate this study,” Mikyska said.
Pasco MPO board member Ron Oakley, who sits on the Pasco County Commission said initially he thought a regional approach would be better because it would strengthen the area’s ability to attract federal funds.
Having a voice, and a seat at the table
But Oakley said he’s concerned about Pasco losing its voice in the process.
“The chance of us having a real good say is very slim because it has to be done by population. Hillsborough and Pinellas are much bigger right now,” Oakley said.
He’d like to see an arrangement where the individual MPOs can operate independently, but join forces to support specific projects that would benefit the region.
Mikyska said he believes that could be accomplished by working through the Suncoast Transportation Planning Alliance, which is a collaboration of the three MPOs in the Tampa region, plus some of the surrounding counties.
“I think we can demonstrate a cooperative nature among us,” Mikyska said.
He noted there appears to be an appetite for a regional MPO in the Tampa Bay business community and among state lawmakers.
But he said there’s less clarity regarding where Pasco and Pinellas counties stand on the issue, and while Hillsborough County has resisted the idea in the past, he’s not sure about its current position.
Pasco MPO board member Matt Murphy, deputy mayor of New Port Richey, said he shared Oakley’s concerns about local issues losing out if a regional MPO is formed.
“We have our pot of money now. If we go to the region, it gets put in a bigger pot. There may be years, maybe multiple years, where we may not get much of it.
“It seems almost like a leap of faith — to try to trust everybody else — and we may get the raw end of that,” Murphy said.
Pasco MPO board member John Hoover, who is mayor of Port Richey, noted: “Obviously, we’re being forced to be part of the study. Is the intent here that, after the study, they can come to the conclusion they want to move to try to force to regionalize?”
Mikyska said he’s not sure the study requires a conclusion.
Hoover asked: “Is it the federal level that makes us autonomous, that we can make it regional or not?”
Mikyska responded: “That is correct.”
MPO board member Scott Black, a city councilman from Dade City sought additional clarification: “We’d have the veto ability to remain on our own, if we wanted to?”
Mikyska answered: “That is correct. You would have to vote to join the larger MPO, then dissolve the individual MPO here, in Pasco.”
Black then noted that he agrees, philosophically, in taking a regional view.
However, he added: “Not to sound parochial, but I like being at the table.
“I like being able to have that voice for the things that are unique to our part of the county.”
Black also questioned the need for a regional MPO, versus the existing setup.
“I don’t think this is broken. I don’t think it needs to be fixed,” Black said.
Published August 30, 2023