Hillsborough County's mass transit agency might have good reasons for objecting to a merger with its counterpart in Pinellas. But it hasn't offered any publicly. Instead, the governing board of Hillsborough Area Regional Transit has fanned unwarranted fears, misrepresented the cost savings and legalities involved and cheapened the debate over how to build a forward-looking regional transit system. Officials need to start over when they return from the holidays.
HART board members want to reconsider in January a motion passed in December that called on the Legislature to fund a new study examining the pros and cons of HART consolidating with the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority. HART has been cool to the idea all along, for reasons that have everything to do with protecting turf and nothing to do with improving service or the bottom line. In reversing course from a new study, members said they feared a sneak attack on HART and wanted to pre-empt any effort to "circumvent" a vote on the agency's future.
This hysteria is ridiculous and the board members know it. An early study found that merging the two agencies could save $2.4 million a year. The next study should examine more closely how to flatten the management ranks, how to merge ticketing and back-shop operations and how to finance and market a truly regional transit system. But HART's board is busy throwing tacks in the road. Now it wants to make a political statement at its next meeting Jan. 7 that all but says it has no interest in moving forward on consolidation.
That's a loss for Hillsborough residents who depend on mass transit, because HART is tapped out financially, and it needs a game-changer for its business model to accommodate the record ridership it is seeing. And it's a waste because HART's own excuses don't jibe with the facts. Full-blown consolidation would require not only a referendum in Hillsborough, but another one in Pinellas. It also would require approval by HART's board and the boards of its three member governments: Tampa, Temple Terrace and the county. And any new funding source for light rail or expanded bus service would be subject to a referendum, too. So this idea the public would not have a voice is ludicrous.
HART is even apprehensive about a lesser option — creating a "Joint Powers Agency" that would combine administrative functions. In a recent release, HART said that a JPA "would serve the purpose of a merged agency," and that as a result, "HART and PSTA would lose direct local control" of their operations. But that is the exact opposite of what HART's own consultant said. Under the JPA, the consultant wrote, "the HART and PSTA boards retain their independent taxing powers (and) exercise control over their services."
There is nothing mysterious about managing mass transit operations on both sides of the bay. And it's ironic the push-back is coming from an agency that by its own name projects a regional mission. HART should welcome any effort that seeks to maximize efficiency. And it should revel in this opportunity to give mass transit a higher profile across the region. The agency at least owes the taxpayers a serious look at whether consolidation makes sense. After all, it's not like the status quo is a winning strategy.