ST. PETERSBURG — Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority executive director Tim Garling resigned Wednesday, creating an unexpected void in efforts to bring light rail to Pinellas County.
Garling is leaving to become director of Broward County Transit, the second-largest transit system in the state.
Garling, who leaves Oct. 18, called it a better career opportunity. He said he will earn about $3,000 more than his $153,500 annual salary in Pinellas.
The larger system will offer "significant challenges and opportunities for me professionally," Garling wrote in his resignation letter. Broward handles about 38 rides an hour compared to PSTA's 22, Garling said.
Garling, 52, was hired here in 2007 because he helped oversee the development of rail in Portland, Ore. Advocates for rail and expanded bus service in Pinellas — where transit funding lags behind other large areas — hoped Garling could help orchestrate a local referendum in 2011 or 2012.
Even if a successful referendum was held, more buses and a rail system would still be a decade away, according to PSTA estimates.
County Commissioner Ken Welch called Garling's departure a huge blow to rail efforts.
St. Petersburg City Council member Jeff Danner said Garling's exit leaves the county flat-footed as it embarks on a new push for passenger rail.
"It's horrible timing," Danner said. "Tim was the only one in the county who had built a rail system. It's disappointing to lose someone who had done more than run a bus system and knew how to apply for grants that could pay for rail. It's going to be difficult to fill those shoes."
Garling had support from most board members, but faced some rocky times. Last year, board member Julie Bujalski questioned his actions when he broke a PSTA rule by paying invoices that exceeded board-approved prices to a company hired to transport disabled residents.
"We didn't think he was doing a bad job. We just thought we should have been informed about this," said County Commissioner Neil Brickfield, a board member.
Dismissing any serious disagreements with the board, Garling said he understood the fears about how his departure would affect rail. But the county has put itself in a good position to move forward, he said, given the start of an 18-month study with state and regional transit agencies on corridors for trains.
"Fantastic progress has been made the past three years," Garling said.
Broward recruited Garling after an unsuccessful national search to fill its top post. Given Broward's difficulty, Danner worried it may be hard to replace Garling.
"If we do a national search, we might find the same thing," Danner said. "There's just no one out there."
Times staff writer Michael Van Sickler contributed to this report. David DeCamp can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8779.