HART wants merger study money vetoed
TAMPA - The HART board wants Gov. Rick Scott to veto a late addition to the state’s transportation bill that includes $200,000 for further study of a merger between the Hillsborough and Pinellas transit authorities. The Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority voted 11-1 on Monday to ask the governor to intervene in the issue. The pressure to merge is being pushed primarily by Pinellas Sen. Jack Latvala; HART board members staunchly oppose the idea. “Let’s ask the governor for a veto,” Tampa City Council and HART board member member Mike Suarez said. “This goes to the issue of local control.” Hillsborough County Commissioner Sandy Murman, who cast the lone dissenting vote, also said she opposes a merger. But the former state legislator said objecting to the study could more deeply embroil HART in a political battle at the state level.“A study does not mean approval,” Murman said. The new study would follow a legislatively mandated consultant’s report last year that found a merger wouldn’t lower expenses in operations or maintenance but would save $2.4 million annually by consolidating senior staff. The HART board disputes that finding, in part because board members say top officials in a larger agency would demand higher salaries. The reaction Monday by the chief executive of the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority to an additional study contrasted sharply with the Hillsborough response. “PSTA thanks Senator Latvala and the Florida Legislature for responding positively … and for supporting further research into how to make the best transit system for the Tampa Bay region possible,” CEO Brad Miller said in an email to The Tampa Tribune. “The PSTA board took a position approving the previous locally-funded study of coordination/consolidation of the two agencies as a way not only to save public money, estimated at $2.4 million annually, money that could be reinvested in better regional transit service, but also a way that could lead to a more efficient, competitive regional transportation network for the Tampa Bay area.” The Hillsborough and Pinellas transit authorities regularly collaborate on routes between the two counties and on fuel purchases to lower costs, among other initiatives. The HART board on Monday also approved a proposal from chief financial officer Jeff Seward to take a regional approach to structuring and collecting fares. That could enable a passenger to use a single fare pass to ride buses operated by different counties in the region. The board also heard a preliminary 2014 budget presentation in which HART staff said it might be possible to add up to 150 hours of additional night and weekend service. The prediction is based in part on a state report that predicts the county’s property tax revenues will increase because county property values are trending upward.