Sunday, February 25, 2018
Transportation

Hillsborough transit officials pull support for second merger study

Throughout their state-mandated merger talks, the governing boards of the Hillsborough and Pinellas transit agencies have been on differing sides.

The distance between them grew on Monday when Hillsborough board members voted to undo one of the few agreements the two boards had reached.

In December, after hours of discussion, the boards of the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority and the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority agreed to ask Tallahassee to pay for a second consolidation study. The first one found that a merger would save the two agencies about $2.4 million a year but said a more detailed analysis was needed.

It was a small step, a narrow point of consensus, and it dissolved on Monday when the HART board rescinded its vote.

Board members said they were concerned that asking state lawmakers for a second study would give the impression that Hillsborough is open to the idea of a merger. It isn't.

"If we allow this to go forward, it is a signal to the Legislature that we are willing to look at consolidation as an endgame," said HART board member Mike Suarez, a Tampa City Council member.

Mark Sharpe, a HART board member and Hillsborough County commissioner, disagreed. He and board members Sandra Murman and Eddie Vance were the only ones to vote against the change.

"We have an obligation to look at the most efficient use of our staff and our moneys," Sharpe said. "I don't see why that's something we should challenge."

After withdrawing its approval for a second study, the board voted to meet regularly with the PSTA board and develop a "strategic coordination plan" to determine how the agencies can work together.

It also passed a resolution condemning any attempt by the state Legislature to merge the two agencies without letting voters have a say.

Now that HART has changed its position, the PSTA board could amend its vote as well, said its chairman, Jeff Danner, a St. Petersburg City Council member. The PSTA board is considering a resolution supporting a second study and asking the state to give the Tampa Bay Area Regional Transportation Authority a more active role in coordinating the agencies' work.

"We need something that is more formal," Danner said, saying that in the six years he has served on the PSTA board, it has met with HART's board only a handful of times. Unless the two boards are required to meet and discuss creating a common website and a shared fare structure, it won't happen, he said.

Anna M. Phillips can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8779.

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