Hillsborough and Pinellas counties fell remarkably short in the yearlong examination of whether the two should merge their public transit systems. The move makes sense financially and operationally, it seems — but not politically. No wonder the region is losing a competitive edge by failing to take the bold steps necessary to fundamentally improve how people and goods move around the area. Business leaders need to step up and make a more forceful case for uniting the transit systems, and the state should pay for a more serious look at the benefits to taxpayers and commuters alike.
The effort did not start off on the best foot, as state Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, had to force the issue through legislation when the agencies should have taken the job upon themselves. But a consultant's study found that merging Hillsborough Area Regional Transit and the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority would save at least $2.4 million annually. That is a conservative estimate but still a significant amount that the cash-strapped agencies could pour back into operations. And a unified entity would be more responsive over time to improving service both within the counties and between them.
HART objected to the effort almost from the start, painting consolidation as a power grab that did nothing to address the transit agency's service levels or inadequate funding base. But this was a governance study — not a public relations campaign for new revenue. And HART wasn't leading a community discussion on raising new taxes for transit improvements, anyway. HART took advantage of the opportunity to use Latvala and Pinellas as bogeymen to justify taking a parochial approach that was more about preserving its turf than confronting a regional problem. PSTA, to its credit, said it was open to another merger study, and it called for greater regional collaboration.
A merger still raises many questions, both practical and legal, and voters on both sides of the bay still would have to approve the measure. So this is hardly a power grab by one county or the Legislature. But HART's opposition also reflects the skepticism toward a merger that is shared across Hillsborough's political landscape. Latvala can move the ball by urging the Legislature to fund a more detailed study into the benefits and drawbacks of consolidating. Having a debate is legitimate. But first get the facts.