TAMPA — Amid increasing talk among Tampa Bay leaders of expanding the role of Hillsborough Area Regional Transit to have more sway over transportation issues, the agency's leader announced Monday he's retiring.
"I built an excellent team,'' said Philip Hale, 63. "I'm comfortable stepping away now."
HART board members greeted the news with praise for Hale's work during his three years as CEO, but kept an optimistic outlook of the agency's future without him at the top.
"Philip did a phenomenal job of serving as interim director and provided stability," said Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe, who serves on the HART board. "But now it's time to change the organization."
A change in leadership is especially important now, Sharpe said, as talks of increasing HART's role in the future of regional transportation is at the forefront of conversations.
A group of elected leaders plotting Hillsborough's transportation future suggested last month that HART may be the ideal agency to oversee the building and operation of new roads, expansion of bus service and planning for commuter rail.
The change, though, may require a restructuring of HART, including the addition of more elected officials, planning experts and economic development officials to its board of directors. That's the consensus of the Transportation for Economic Development Policy Leadership Group, which includes county commissioners and the mayors of Hillsborough's three cities and has been meeting for nine months.
A possible merger between HART and its Pinellas County counterpart, Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority, also has been discussed by some politicians. However, a state-funded study released last month concluded that a merger of the agencies would not save as much money as initially predicted.
News of Hale's departure appeared to come abruptly to the board.
Hale said he made the decision during a recent trip home to Texas. He declined to disclose details for his plans, only saying a family business — not one involving transportation — had been passed to him. A memo to the board cited family reasons for his departure. A brother who lives in Texas told a Tampa Bay Times reporter Monday that he wasn't sure what family business Hale was referring to.
Hale joined HART in 2008 as chief of maintenance and facilities. He previously worked for Dallas Area Rapid Transit.
He was named CEO of HART in 2011 to replace David Armijo, who was fired amid allegations he disregarded policies and demoted or shuffled employees who questioned his decisions.
Hale's annual salary is $150,000, not including benefits. His announcement Monday officially gave 90 days notice of his retirement, which would be May 2.
Under Hale's leadership, HART underwent great growth, said board member Fran Davin.
HART is saving more than $2.5 million annually and has built up reserves, Davin said. Hale also helped launch new initiatives, including a bus locator application for smartphones.
"This didn't happen in a vacuum," Davin said. "This happened due to good leadership and because Mr. Hale built a great team here."
Hale's greatest legacy, most board members agreed, is the staff he put in place.
"There's going to be a void when he leaves," said board Chairman Mike Suarez, a Tampa City Council member. "But he leaves behind a really good staff."
Whether the CEO search will begin immediately or an interim director will be named has yet to be discussed, Suarez said.
Sharpe envisions a leader who can rally both employees and the public.
"I'm looking for somebody who understands how a bus agency operates but also understands the changing dynamic in which we live," Sharpe said.
Members of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1593, which represents bus drivers, streetcar operators, mechanics and support staff at HART, were happy to hear the news of Hale's departure.
"He never had an ear for any employee problems or issues," said chief steward Michaela Stuckey. "Because morale is so low at HART, whoever is going to be the next leader needs to be a human who wants to listen. We have a lot of ideas."
Times news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Shelley Rossetter can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3401.