Throwing tax dollars under the bus
It’s déjŕ vu all over again for the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority. Last year, state lawmakers appropriated $100,000 for a study on the implications of merging the Hillsborough authority, known as HART, with its counterpart across the bay, the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority, known as PSTA. The study found a merger would not lower expenses in operations or maintenance but could save $2.4 million a year by consolidating senior staff. Some of the findings were disputed by HART officials, and it appeared the study was headed for the shelf where government studies go to die.But that was way back in December, a distant six months ago. What’s changed over those 180 days? Not much, other than the Legislature met and is trying to force another study of a potential merger of the Hillsborough and Pinellas transit authorities. Sen. Jack Latvala, a Republican from Clearwater, added $200,000 into the state budget for a new study. He thinks the first study didn’t go far enough into the details of how much money could be saved by a merger. We think this study is unnecessary. Gov. Rick Scott should eliminate the expenditure before signing off on the budget. The study is certainly unwanted by HART, whose board members voted to ask the governor to kill the appropriation. Fran Davin, the chair of HART’s board, doesn’t think there is anything to be gained from another study. She said much of what the first study recommended can be achieved with inter-local agreements between the agencies. That feeling isn’t shared by PSTA board members, who support another study and appear more eager for a merger. But it doesn’t make a lot of sense to spend money on another report if HART is not interested. A merger might be in the best interest of both agencies at some future date, but that needs to be mutually decided by HART and PSTA, free of dictates from state lawmakers to one agency or the other. Another study now looks more like an attempt to send a message to HART than a serious effort to learn about merger possibilities. There is no question that the area faces transportation challenges that will need regional solutions. Eventually merging the two agencies could very well lead to efficiencies in costs and operations. But another study pointing this out seems like an attempt to send a message to HART than an actual enlightening of merger possibilities. But HART and PSTA already collaborate. The agencies share services, consolidating fuel purchases and coordinating routes. Another transit referendum that includes rail, this one in Pinellas next year, will provide a window into the public’s appetite for spending money on light rail and expanding bus services. In Hillsborough, two years after rail’s defeat at the polls, there is renewed talk of bringing the question back to the voters in a smarter way. Looming on the horizon are billion-dollar decisions about rebuilding the Howard Frankland Bridge. Should the span be built to accommodate a potential rail line connecting the two counties? The answers to these questions might inform future decisions about merging transit operations. At this point, with many controversial decisions to be made, it is important each community has control of its transportation destiny. As the Tampa Bay area grows, and its stifling commutes worsen, getting the public to support rail becomes more likely. And the reasons to consolidate transit agencies become more apparent. It doesn’t take a study to understand that.
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