The opponents of merging the two transit agencies in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties may sneer at saving a half-million bucks a year, but a new report shows that consolidating still makes financial and operational sense. While the savings might not be as great as earlier predicted, at least initially, the money is still substantial and could amount to millions over time. Combining the operation also has a larger value: A regional transit agency could better serve the area's 2 million people and more effectively compete for federal transportation money. The question is not whether to merge but how and when.
Merging the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority and Hillsborough Area Regional Transit into a single operation would save taxpayers about $339,000 a year. Those savings could reach more than $585,000 annually after a unified agency paid severance for redundant workers and other start-up costs. Consolidating the bus fleets and administrative operations could cost $5 million or more, the report found. But streamlining the fleet and business functions could save millions more in the outlying years through avoided maintenance, inventory costs and other efficiencies.
Opponents of consolidation, particularly at HART, are using the findings to blow holes in an earlier report that estimated the initial savings of a merger could reach $2.4 million per year. That is a misguided, self-serving way to read the numbers. Apart from saving millions in salaries and benefits, the agencies could save by automating their business practices, sharing warehousing space, consolidating purchases and other measures. Given that neither bus system is going away, the only honest approach is to look at the savings over the long term.
The benefits go beyond money. More than ever, political, business and civic leaders are embracing the reality that Tampa Bay needs to act as a region to compete nationally and globally. That transition is already taking place in job development, tourism and environmental efforts. Uniting the two counties under a single umbrella provides a framework for designing a seamless transportation system. It makes the region more competitive for discretionary grants by offering more bang for the transportation buck. And consolidation builds on the state's offer to accommodate rail on a new Howard Frankland Bridge.
This region is growing, and the architecture for preserving the area's quality of life needs to keep pace. A single agency would still meet the needs for local service while acting on a higher plane to bring a modern transportation system to Florida's west coast. It's time to think not about next week but next year and the year after that, when the county lines will become even more artificial than they are now. Saving money is a plus, but it's only one aspect of creating a better transit system.