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With some expression of misgivings, the county’s group that oversees road plans agreed Thursday to reach out for a merger deal with its larger neighbor to the south.
“I don’t want to see us get shortchanged,” said Inverness City Council member Marti Consuegra at a regular meeting of the Citrus County Transportation Planning Organization (TPO) board. Her comments were in reaction to a presentation by TPO’s consultant Bob Clifford, director of the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority (TBARTA).
Clifford reported to the board that research determined the TPO should seek to merge with the Hernando County Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) for regional representation to the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT). Clifford had considered the MPOs in other adjacent counties, but presented Hernando County as the best option.
As a result of 2010 U.S. Census data, Citrus County’s TPO must take on the higher MPO status for future transportation planning. However, FDOT advised it would urge Citrus to join an existing MPO rather than seek its own standalone MPO as the state already has so many of them that it makes regional planning cumbersome.
Following his presentation about merging with Hernando MPO, Clifford sought approval from the TPO board to send two letters to further engage negotiations. One letter to FDOT Secretary Ananth Prasad expressed intent to merge with Hernando MPO, while the second to Hernando MPO offered to start discussions.
“Both counties are geographically within FDOT District 7, members of TBARTA, part of the Tampa Bay economic and media organizations/markets, part of the Nature Coast, growing in population and employment, share major north/south transportation routes and are reasonably close in demographic makeup,” Clifford wrote to Hernando MPO. “Additionally, we believe the economic opportunities and benefits of merging, such as combining of local resources and speaking as one larger voice for state, federal and private resources and funding, could be an enhanced opportunity.”
Clifford wrote to Prasad: “Citrus TPO, Hernando MPO and FDOT District 7 staffs have begun the coordination process toward creation of a joint MPO. The Hernando County MPO will consider this option at the organization’s regular meeting of Jan. 22.
Consuegra sought assurances during the board’s discussion about the proposed merger.
“Being closer to Tampa, the development, the funding and the spending of money would better suit them (Hernando MPO) right now than would suit us,” Consuegra said. “We’re not to that point of development with our population.”
Consuegra said Hernando County had long been developing its own interests such as its airport and industrial area that had no connection with the interests of Citrus County, which is working on its own projects.
“We’re in baby steps right now,” Consuegra said. “I don’t want to see us get shortchanged in any way.”
Clifford said these issues would be addressed during future negotiations.
“What you are telling me then is let’s take a step and see what happens,” Consuegra replied.
Clifford responded that FDOT was “strongly” encouraging that no new MPOs be created, but that TPOs join with existing MPOs. Of the three adjoining MPOs — Ocala-Marion, Lake-Sumter and Hernando County, the latter “makes the most sense.”
Consuegra still was concerned that Citrus County’s needs could be “shelved” because Hernando County would have greater traffic movement necessities.
“I don’t want to see our projects put aside because you’ve got to do Hernando County first because of
the population,” Consuegra said.
Clifford said project funding would not work that way because the combined MPO would have to develop priorities for FDOT funding requests. He said the process worked well for other combined MPOs, most of which are joint county MPOs.
“I want to be clear so you understand. There are going to be times when the No. 1 priority is going to be in Hernando County,” Clifford said. “And when that project’s done, the No. 1 priority may be in Citrus County.”
With prioritized projects, Clifford explained, many assignments would be ongoing simultaneously at different stages of completion, rather than a top project being completed before the next could start.
“The other thing FDOT is required to do is they have a fair share analysis,” Clifford said. “There is a formula that they have to ensure that counties are receiving their fair share so that it’s not all in one county as opposed to another county.”
By a motion proposed by County Commission Chairman Joe Meek and seconded by Commissioner Dennis Damato, the TPO unanimously agreed to send the letters.
Chronicle reporter Chris Van Ormer can be reached at email@example.com or 352-564-2916.