Friday, December 15, 2017
Editorials

Getting the facts on transit merger

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.

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