Daniel Ruth: If you’re the transit boss, fleeing Tampa for Pittsburgh is a no-brainer

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Hillsborough County, Florida and Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, have almost identical populations of about 1.3 million people. But when it comes to issues such as public transportation the two communities couldn’t be more diametrically opposite from one another.

Or think of Hillsborough as Dogpatch to Allegheny’s Brigadoon.

And perhaps that explains just a bit why when Katharine Eagan, the CEO of the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority, was offered the opportunity to move to Pittsburgh to assume the leadership the Port Authority of Allegheny County, she couldn’t pack her bags fast enough for the chance to oversee the transit needs of a big-boy-pants community.

This had to feel just a bit like moving up from T-ball to the major leagues. And this place has no one else to blame for Eagan’s loss than its own parochial, petty self.

In departing from Florida, Eagan will leave behind a bedraggled, financially stressed, ignored transit system that more often than not is regarded as an inconvenience so she can relocate to a bustling metropolis that acknowledges the intrinsic value of a maintaining a robust public transportation infrastructure.

Or consider that despite their almost identical size, HART serves around 38,000 people a day on a system dependent on bus routes. On the other hand, Pittsburgh’s highly touted transportation grid handles 200,000 daily riders using a synergistic combination of 800 buses, 80 light rail vehicles and a cable car system.

Here? We’re barely beyond the rickshaw stage.

Indeed in recent weeks HART has been forced to reduce and consolidate routes. And, perhaps in a development symbolic of the regions’ historical failure to address its transit needs, even the operators of the Cross-Bay Ferry experiment, which linked Tampa and St. Petersburg and enjoyed strong ridership, announced they won’t be returning to the area anytime soon.

The reason? Not enough local government support. Shocking!

Upon arriving in Pittsburgh in January, Eagan will take control of a transit authority with a $450 million budget as opposed to HART’s $70 million.

But more importantly, she will be settling down in a community that appreciates the importance of transit not only as a vital part of a region’s understanding of the need to efficiently move people around, but she will also be working with a citizenry and its leaders who regard transportation as a civic priority.

Not here. For years efforts have been made to pass various tax initiatives to improve and expand the regions’ transportation demands. And each time, the response has been no, no, no and a thousand times no.

Rather, the residents seem to prefer gridlock to progress.

Instead, the refusal to drag Hillsborough into the 21st Century has resulted in Tampa Bay earning the dubious distinction of having one of the worst transportation systems in the United States. At last we’re number one in something — stupidity.

The lack of progress in advancing HART’s mission undermines Tampa Bay’s ability to attract investment, lure corporate relocations, and only further suppresses the ability of the poor to find employment since they can’t get to where the jobs are.

Ever the diplomat, Eagan told the Tampa Bay Times’ Caitlin Johnson that her departure could well pave the way for her eventual successor. "It’s very attractive for the next whiz kid in transit, so I don’t feel bad at all," Eagan said, which might also be construed as a not too thinly veiled, "Good luck, but I’m out of here."

Really now. What savvy, smart "next whiz kid" in the public transportation game would want to come to Hillsborough County knowing he or she would be stepping into a toxic political environment which is at best indifferent to transportation, or at worst downright hostile to the future?

To be sure, Eagan should be congratulated on her new job and thanked for her leadership. Goodness knows she more than earned her promotion after putting her time in combating the forces of myopia.

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