Friday, November 24, 2017
News Roundup

Some Hillsborough transit officials want to hit the brakes on merger talks

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TAMPA — The spirit of regional cooperation came to a quick and painful end Monday.

Seven days ago, the governing boards of the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority and the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority held a meeting to discuss merging their agencies. Both sides voted to ask the state to pay for a new consolidation study.

But now some HART board members are rebelling against taking even that small step.

Not only do they want to take back that vote, but they also want to pass a resolution condemning any attempt to merge HART with PSTA — or to use that combined agency to bring light rail to Tampa Bay — without letting voters have a say.

"I am really appalled at everything said at that last meeting about circumventing referendums and not getting voter approval," said Tampa City Council member Mike Suarez, who sits on the HART board.

Board members also had harsh words for the man who sponsored the legislation that required the two sides to address consolidation: state Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater.

"It's unfortunate," Latvala said. "They've been cool to the idea over there from day one."

HART board members made their comments during Monday's meeting of the agency's finance, governance and administration committee. The full HART board won't be able to act on the committee's recommendations until its regular Jan. 7 meeting.

The HART members were reacting to last week's joint meeting with PSTA. Both sides questioned a study that said consolidation could save $2.4 million a year. After three hours of debate, the only thing both sides could agree on was to ask for another study.

Then came Monday's meeting, during which HART members spoke as though the agency was being threatened by outside political forces. Latvala, who spoke at last week's joint meeting, was frequently mentioned.

"I was shocked … when he suggested, almost threatened, that there would be a political price for those" who opposed merging, said HART board member Josh Burgin.

Latvala said that's not what he said: "I didn't say anything that could be construed like that, other than to say when we vote against things to save the taxpayers money, we have to pay the consequences as elected officials. Josh Burgin isn't an elected official. He doesn't have to face any consequences."

HART board members also criticized a proposal to combine the agencies using what's known as joint powers authority. That framework would let HART and PSTA combine staff, resources and headquarters but still set their own rates and routes.

To the HART rebels, that concept is a threat to their sovereignty — and a stalking horse for bringing light rail to the Tampa Bay area without letting the electorate vote on it. Hillsborough County voters rejected a light rail referendum in 2010.

"It became clear through the senator's comments that the motivations … are not concerned about cost-effectiveness," said board member Steven Polzin. "They're concerned about the symbolism of having a big regional agency that can have light rail."

PSTA chief executive officer Brad Miller said that's not the intent of the "joint powers authority" idea.

"I heard they condemned that idea as a way to 'circumvent' the voters of Hillsborough County," Miller said. "I don't believe that was the intent of the consultant."

Latvala said the HART board members are victims of their own parochialism. He said the only way to fund light rail is with a sales tax referendum — and board members know that.

He said the HART rebels are really scared of what the second study — a "desk audit" that would look closely at staff operations — might reveal.

"I think it will show two to three times the savings estimated in the first (study)," Latvala said. "That's what they're afraid of. They know they can't justify keeping two separate entities and having that kind of savings ignored, so they don't want anyone to know how much that is."

Miller said PSTA's board members still support studying consolidation. But now he has no idea what's next for consolidation when the HART and PSTA boards meet again on Jan. 14.

"Certainly, if one side does not want to do it," Miller said, "it will never get done."

Jamal Thalji can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3404.

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