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How the Hillsborough Public Works Department affects lives every day

Kim Byer standing at an intersection near a large stop sign where a large resurfacing project is taking place
Sky Lebron
WUSF Public Media
"We maintain 7700 lane miles of asphalt, over 3000 sidewalks, the largest bridge inventory in the state of Florida at 226 bridges, and over 200 traffic signals," Assistant County Administrator for Public Works Kim Byer said.

Kim Byer, the assistant county administrator for public works, explains how the department chooses which projects are bumped to the top of the priority list.

Hillsborough County’s Public Works Department is in charge of making sure the infrastructure in the region is working and maintained, whether it’s fixing potholes, resurfacing streets, and replacing and fixing traffic light signals.

WUSF’s Sky Lebron spoke with Kim Byer, the assistant county administrator for public works, about how these projects are selected and prioritized.

The discussion took place along Howard Avenue, where a roadway improvement project is underway.

Byer starts by talking about the specific project.

Kim Byer: This is Howard Avenue in the city of Tampa. It's one of the many streets that the county owns and maintains in the city. It's about 1.5 miles long. It's a one way street, so it's very busy. We're in the process of resurfacing this road. And what we'll be doing is adding eight pedestrian crossings to make it a lot safer for pedestrians to cross this area. At Gray Street it'll be a part of the bike track for the city of Tampa. So a lot of great improvements here. There’s street parking on either side. Lots of complaints from Howard Avenue. Everybody utilizes Howard Avenue. So it's a big profile project and we're really happy to get this started and underway.

I have some complaints about Howard. I could get with you after this [laughs]. How many projects are there around Hillsborough County that your office has to consider? One or two?

Well, we currently have 335 capital projects. And that's just the capital projects. That doesn't consider the day-to-day maintenance of tree trimming, pothole patching, mowing. 335 just currently in progress.

For people that don't understand what capital projects are, what does that mean?

Those are the large, high-dollar projects. It can range anywhere from a library renovation, to road widening, to even a fire station, a construction, or an intersection improvement.

On an average day for some of these people that are dealing with customers, how many calls could they be fielding? Is it dozens? Is it just a few per day? Is the phone hot all day for them?

All day. Hundreds of calls, hundreds of calls. And when we feel these calls, it's not just, ‘I'm going out to an address and filling a pothole.’ A lot of times it's case management where they have to determine where it is. Does the county own that infrastructure? Is it a planned improvement already? So there's a lot that goes in into this case management when citizens call in.

What's the most popular among the complaints or suggestions that you've noticed?

Sidewalks. Potholes. By far — sidewalks and potholes.

Why do you think that is?

Because they affect our daily lives. They affect kids riding bikes, potholes when we commute. Everybody feels them, right?

And how do you then decide what gets prioritized across the entire county? I mean, you're saying there's over 300 capital improvement projects, there's tons of complaints coming in on a daily basis from people just looking at potholes, street repairs, sidewalks. How do you guys then parse all that down to what is most important?

So first, we prioritize safety above all else. Then there's congestion. So if it's a congestion issue, it is also evaluated. And also funding. Is it cost feasible to fund this project? If it's a $50 million project, and it only affects 50 people, it's not going to be really high on the list.

And how big is funding when it comes to this? I know, money can be tight, especially at the county, state, and federal level. When it comes to solving some of the biggest transportation issues and just public works issues. How much does funding play into that?

Absolutely everything we do has to be funded, right? And the only dedicated funding public works has the gas tax, and with more fuel efficient cars, or people walking and biking, that number just decreases every year.

Are there any projects that you've seen that have been on the docket? Or are behind scheduling just because of some of those funding concerns?

We typically don't go out to construction until we have the dollar secured. And then we make sure we have enough contingency in the event there is a cost increase, typically. But we do have several projects that we've shelved. We've done the design, and we just don't have the money to move forward on construction.

Do you have any prime example of that?

Van Dyke Road would be one. We'll be completing design here in the next year and a half, and it will sit until funding becomes available.

What do you think people don't know or think about when they are talking about their public works department, if they're talking about their public works department? Because I think there are a lot of people that don't even know about public works departments.

What they probably don't know is the people behind public works. They really save lives every day. If they fail to put a stop sign in properly, there's a safety issue. If they fail to maintain a signal, that's a safety issue. If the edge of pavement is not maintained, that could cause an accident. So they really play an integral part of saving lives in Hillsborough County.

As a host and reporter for WUSF, my goal is to unearth and highlight issues that wouldn’t be covered otherwise. If I truly connect with my audience as I relay to them the day’s most important stories and make them think about an issue past the point that I’ve said it in a newscast, that’s a success in my eyes.