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Sunday, May 20, 2018
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A new study should put end to talk of merging bus systems

A new study on the financial implications of merging transit systems in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties should put to rest any notion of a merger any time soon.

The $200,000 study by the consultant KPMG found it would cost far more to implement a merger than could be saved by consolidating management operations.

The findings leave no rational reason to merge the bus systems in the region’s most populated counties, where the future of transit is far from settled and should remain in the control of the local boards, at least for the time being.

In Pinellas, voters will decide in November whether to pass a sales tax to fund an expansion of bus services and a light rail line connecting Clearwater and St. Petersburg. Any talk of merging the Pinellas system, known as PSTA, with the Hillsborough system, known as HART, could affect the outcome by giving voters the false impression they would be paying to fund transit in Hillsborough. And merging the systems now would be problematic from a practical standpoint, as HART is moving toward hybrid technology in its bus fleet and PSTA is moving toward natural gas.

The merger talk also lacked unanimity. PSTA officials encouraged studies on ways to merge, while HART withdrew its support, not wanting to appear to favor a merger. HART officials think there is little sense in losing local control over its operations at this time.

The state-funded study was pushed by Sen. Jack Latvala, a Republican from Clearwater, who made sure the funding was included in the state budget. The study will be forwarded to the Legislature, where it should be put aside.

No doubt, planning the future of transit in the Tampa Bay area will demand collaboration in the years ahead. Pinellas and Hillsborough need to plan together for multi-modal systems that move commuters and visitors from neighborhoods and airports to commercial districts and the beaches. The state is promising to build a new northbound Howard Frankland Bridge span that can accommodate rail, and there needs to be agreement between the counties on a plan.

But those issues can be worked out without a forced marriage of the transit systems. Once residents of each county make some of those major transportation decisions, a single transit entity might make sense.

Until then, the two agencies are better off operating independently.

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