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Hillsborough loses transit leader Katharine Eagan to a better funded agency

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Katharine Eagan, who is credited with making the most a shoestring budget as chief executive officer of Hillsborough Area Regional Transit, is leaving the post after nine years. [GABRIELLA ANGIOTTI-JONES | Times]

TAMPA ó Katharine Eagan, the leader of Hillsborough Countyís transit agency, is leaving the job just a month after implementing a widespread overhaul of the countyís bus network.

She will take over as CEO of the Port Authority of Allegheny, Pa., which provides public transportation in the Pittsburgh area. Her last day at the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority will be Jan. 5.

Eagan will be trading a threadbare and underfunded bus system for one of the most robust, well-funded and varied transit systems in the nation.

Some 200,000 daily riders use the Allegheny authorityís services, which include buses, light rail, aerial cable cars and transportation for people with disabilities. By comparison, HARTís daily bus and van ridership serves about one-fifth that number, closer to 38,000 people.

Pittsburgh spends twice as much as the Tampa Bay area on bus service alone, even though the two regions have similar populations. The Pittsburgh authority has four times as many buses as HART, its daily ridership is five times that of Hillsboroughís and its overall transit spending s four times that of Pinellas and Hillsborough combined.

"Itís a fantastic opportunity in a town that has a lot of civic support of transportation," Eagan said. "Itís a $450 million budget, my friend Ö It really is a grandam of American transit."

To be exact, the port authorityís operating budget for fiscal year 2018 is nearly $420 million. By comparison, HARTís is $70.5 million.

"Itís a major loss for HART," said Hillsborough County Commissioner Les Miller, who serves as chair of the HART board. "Katharine is a young, bright person that understands transit and was able to work miracles with the dollars we had."

Eagan will get a $47,000 raise. She made $183,000 annually at HART and will now make $230,000 in Pittsburgh.

She has previously worked at transit agencies in Baltimore and Dallas. She joined HART as chief operating officer in 2009 and then became chief executive officer in 2014. She became an advocate for innovative solutions to make the most of a shoestring HART budget ó one of the lowest per capita in the country.

While sheís moving to a region that dwarfs Hillsborough in terms of money, buses and resources, Eagan said the new job comes with its own challenges.

"Weíll worry differently," she said. "Itís not necessarily, ĎOh, you get to do everything,í but it does make it easier to do the leveraging you need to get innovative partnerships."

Those type of partnerships are how Eagan made a name for herself in Tampa Bay, including initiatives with electric-car maker Tesla and taxi companies, and laying the foundation for what will be one of the first autonomous bus routes in the country.

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Under Eagan, HARTís ridership increased more than 20 percent from 2010 to 2015 and farebox proceeds rose 25 percent. However, ridership numbers have steadily decreased since then, mirroring a national trend.

Tampa Bayís transit system is one of the worst in the country, an analysis by the Tampa Bay Times found earlier this year. The network connects fewer people to fewer jobs than in other similar-sized communities.

TIMES ANALYSIS: Tampa Bay has one of the worst public transit systems in America

Attempts were made to increase HARTís budget during Eaganís tenure, but to no avail. The most notable was a 2016 attempt to raise the sales tax by half a cent to pay for improved bus service and transit options such as light rail. But the Hillsborough County Commission refused to put the referendum on the November 2016 ballot.

As a result, HART cut nearly 20 percent of its service ó mostly on the outskirts of the county ó to try to improve bus routes in downtown Tampa and surrounding areas. The initiative, known as Mission Max, improved service for most riders but left others stranded with few or no options.

Eagan was also courted by Columbus, Austin and Portland. But Eagan said she didnít feel comfortable leaving the agency when the budget deficit was so high. That changed in the past year, when HART balanced its budget, quickly implemented Mission Max and kept up high customer satisfaction numbers, even through Hurricane Irma.

Beth Alden, executive director of Hillsboroughís transportation planning group, said Eagan will be missed "as a collaborator and big-picture thinker." Others, like Tampa transit advocate Kevin Thurman, praised Eagan for her directness and ability to connect with people.

He also lauded her ability to make some progress finding transit solutions, such as the expansion of the TECO Line Streetcar and funding the regional premium transit study. Each faced significant pushback in the past.

"Iíve been impressed with her ability to make things happen in spite of the deer in the headlights leadership we have from politicians in this area when it comes to transportation," Thurman said.

Miller said he hopes the HART board will name an interim CEO in the next few weeks. Then the agency will start a national search for her replacement.

Eagan said HART CEO will be see as an attractive position for up-and-coming transit executives. The agency has a balanced budget and projects coming online like the self-driving bus that will start operate along the Marion Transitway starting in January 2018.

"Itís very attractive for the next whiz kid in transit," she said. "So I donít feel bad at all."

Contact Caitlin Johnston at [email protected]