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Early study of possible Pinellas, Hillsborough transit merger calls process long and complex

Merging the Pinellas and Hillsborough county transit systems would be costly and complex, possibly taking as long as five years to complete, according to a new draft study.

The two transit agencies' boards met on Monday to discuss the study, which outlined three possible scenarios for the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority and Hillsborough Area Regional Transit. In one plan, the agencies would merge completely, combining their bus fleets and aligning their fares. In another, they would partner but remain legally distinct, and in a third, they would continue to operate separately.

Conducted by McCollum Consulting, a company the agencies hired after the state Legislature forced them to consider a merger, the draft study received a mostly negative response.

Hillsborough officials have long opposed the idea of combining transit agencies, and on Monday, many Pinellas officials said the timing was wrong.

"The reaction from the PSTA board members today was more mixed, most saying, well, there's a lot of good ideas in the report but maybe the timing was not right," said Brad Miller, chief executive officer of the PSTA.

Both agencies rely on property taxes for funding, and in the aftermath of the recession and the housing crisis, both have suffered considerable budget cuts. PSTA also is in the middle of redrawing its bus routes to accommodate a glut of new riders.

Proponents of a merger have argued that combining the agencies would save money by reducing staff. The savings from eliminating duplicative management positions would come to about $2.4 million, according to the draft report, which estimates that few driver or mechanic jobs would be lost.

The draft study also highlighted many obstacles to a merger. Each county's transit agency has two collective bargaining agreements with two different unions. Bus operators and mechanics work under different wage scales. And while Hillsborough prefers buses powered by compressed natural gas, Pinellas favors diesel-hybrid buses.

A merger would be further complicated by the fact that it would require not only state lawmakers' approval, but also majority votes by the agencies' boards and voter referendums.

The final version of the study is due in December, and the boards are expected to vote on it in January, Miller said.

Anna M. Phillips can be reached at aphillips@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8779.

Early study of possible Pinellas, Hillsborough transit merger calls process long and complex 11/12/12 [Last modified: Monday, November 12, 2012 9:24pm]
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