Done right, merging the mass transit systems in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties could make it easier and cheaper for commuters to travel throughout Tampa Bay. It only make sense with rising gas prices and more people driving to work across county lines for the region to have regular, convenient service between both sides of the bay. But state lawmakers pushing a bill that prods the counties in this direction should provide local leaders time to put a solid plan on the table.
The two counties already run buses into each other's territory and collaborate on purchasing and other operational matters. A bill by Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, who represents both Pinellas and Hillsborough, calls for the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority and Hillsborough Area Regional Transit to explore whether they should consolidate operations, including a merger. Declining property values have forced both agencies to cut back on spending and routes — even as they carry record ridership, about 13 million annually each. Latvala believes a consolidation could save the agencies millions of dollars a year.
Only a full-blown study can confirm whether the agencies would be better off as a single entity. Given that drivers and mechanics comprise the largest chunk of employees for any bus system, the real savings come from cutting routes — not from flattening the administrative ranks. Densely populated Pinellas and sprawling Hillsborough also serve distinct bus populations. Any consolidation would have to work for both sides and provide parity in service going forward.
Given the implications to tax fairness, and to bus service on both sides of the bay, it was good to see the local delegation back off an amendment that would have fast-tracked the talks and laid a course for a merger as early as 2013. A more responsible course would be for both counties to explore consolidation without political interference from the Legislature. Any merger should come about on its merits and not by political force. That approach is completely in keeping with the tone Latvala set when he floated the idea last year, calling on both counties to "carefully consider" a merger. "I am not so committed to this that I'm going to ram this through," Latvala told the HART board. "If I don't get consensus … then we're not going to do it."
A regional approach is the ideal model, and it builds on the progress Pinellas, Hillsborough and other west coast counties have made in recent years in integrating their transit systems. The Legislature can boost local support for the effort by giving the counties the time to get it right.