TAMPA — The transportation agencies for Hillsborough and Pinellas counties made nice during a joint meeting on Monday, basically agreeing to see how they can work more closely together in the future — just so long as no one mentions the "m" word: merger.
The Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority and the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority both had a mandate from the Florida Legislature to study consolidating the two agencies and submit a joint report to the Speaker of the Florida House by Feb. 1.
Both governing boards did just that on Monday — and only that.
But there was no joint resolution asking the Legislature to fund a second, more detailed consolidation study. Both HART and PSTA voted for that in December, but then HART rebelled and later voted against it. HART feared it would signal to Tallahassee that the agency is open to merging with PSTA — and it's not.
Both sides, though, chose to bury their differences during Monday's public meeting.
"If you look at what the press has written over the past two months, it looks like we're two cowboys in the old saloon and we're ready to take the gunfight outside," said Hillsborough County Commissioner Sandra Murman, who sits on HART's board. "But that isn't the case."
Despite their disagreements, the chairs of both boards agreed to move on.
"I think this has been a good exercise," said St. Petersburg City Council member Jeff Danner, the PSTA chair. "We've learned a lot about each other."
"I think we have a really good opportunity to move forward," said HART chair Fran Davin.
Beneath the niceties, however, remains a serious schism about merging their operations, finances and resources. Which is why both boards voted to send the same report sent to lawmakers with two different resolutions:
HART's brief resolution calls for both boards to keep meeting, identify projects both agencies can examine together and start setting benchmarks and policies toward "continued collaboration." But HART's resolution doesn't mention consolidation at all.
"We are way away from a merger," Davin said afterward.
PSTA's longer resolution calls for improving regional "connectivity." It would support the Legislature funding more consolidation studies and calls for a "proactive regional coordination role" for the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority.
But there was still disagreement over what to send to Tallahassee. TBARTA drafted a letter to the Legislature saying the regional agency wants a bigger role in future discussions. PSTA wanted the TBARTA letter included in the report. HART balked.
The issue was resolved when TBARTA chairman Ronnie Duncan offered to mail it to Tallahassee himself.
But the concept of consolidation is hardly finished.
The Florida Legislature could order the additional study that HART resisted. Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, sponsored the original legislation that brought HART and PSTA together to discuss the idea. The first consultant's report said merging would save both agencies $2.4 million. Latvala believes a more detailed analysis will reveal more savings.
Duncan said that it's pivotal for HART and PSTA to work more closely together. There's no system of public transportation that consistently and easily bridges the two counties, he said, and Pasco County is looking to see what both counties do next.
"The entire region is watching to see how this plays out," Duncan said.
Jamal Thalji can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3404.