It's revealing that such a small item in the state budget for 2013-14 has Hillsborough Area Regional Transit so exercised: a $200,000 study to examine the cost and operational benefits of merging the mass transit systems on both sides of Tampa Bay. Gov. Rick Scott should preserve the spending as a small but potentially crucial step toward finally building the mass transit system this region needs to thrive.
The study — pushed by Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater — would build on an earlier report that found that merging HART and the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority could save at least $2.4 million a year. That was a back-of-the-envelope estimate based on savings from cutting the administrative staff — one personnel director instead of two, for example. And the agencies might save money elsewhere by whittling down on office space and making more use of bulk purchasing.
But the bigger hurdle is HART, which maintains a combined operation would not save money or improve service. Its board sent the governor a letter this month urging him to veto the $200,000 appropriation in the budget. HART's real concern is protecting its turf.
There is nothing special about managing a two-county system. A combined agency would look much the same as the two look today — with a workforce largely involved in the routine of driving and maintaining buses. But a combined agency might save on overhead while still delivering services in the counties' home areas. The larger problems with funding and operations that HART says the merger does not address are beyond the issue of governance anyway. But a better governing model might give a combined agency more opportunities to expand its services and funding base and find efficiencies.
The governor would not be changing anything overnight or treading on local control by allowing the study to go forward. Voters on both sides of the bay would have to approve a merger; this study would merely advance the discussion, help sort through some of the legal and practical questions and make for a more informed debate.
This region will never meet its transportation needs if local leaders don't think further ahead about the mission of mass transit and its role in fostering a more vibrant economy. A combined agency could put the focus on service and quality of life instead of jurisdictional issues. And if this region hopes to get commuter rail service, it needs a transit system comfortable with ambition and risk. The merger study is a step in that direction, and its findings will be helpful whether the two agencies merge or not.