The Tampa Bay area cannot have a robust regional transit system without a robust regional transit authority. That should be painfully clear to anyone looking for better service from the two cash-strapped county systems on the opposite sides of the bay. The region already combines forces on common issues, from job development to higher education to managing the local water supply. It is time to apply that same approach to building a mass transit system that truly connects the region's metropolitan areas.
The staff and governing boards of the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority and Hillsborough Area Regional Transit talked around the most important point last week as they reacted to a state-mandated review of whether the agencies should collaborate more or consider an outright merger. The issue is not whether such a move raises legal, political and operational hurdles — those are givens — but rather what the future looks like for a region where the demand for mass transit is growing as transit policy is being made in silos by separate agencies that have tapped out their funding sources.
A consultant that examined a merger estimated the agencies could save $2.4 million a year by flattening the bureaucratic flow charts. That is significant money that a combined operation could pour back into services. Though some HART board members have questioned the savings, it is indisputable that a single agency could save on overhead without affecting existing bus service. With both counties experiencing record ridership, consolidation is the business model for the future.
The agencies agreed Monday to seek state funding for a second and more detailed merger study. While getting the details right is important, the focus needs to be on creating an ideal framework to operate mass transit across the region. Debating whether a combined operation would save $5 million or $1 million detracts from the bigger question of how to fundamentally strengthen the mission of both agencies. PSTA and HART need new revenue streams before light rail is a viable possibility. They need to show a commitment to regional service in keeping with the bay area's modern commuting patterns. And they need to take a more active role in shaping the look of the region's transportation grid. The highways aren't cutting it.
Sharing staff and office space and bulk buying on contracts does not position the agencies to think more comprehensively about the region's mass transit needs. It does not create a single brand for bus and rail in the bay area or a single voice to balance planning and spending decisions between roads and mass transit. It actually undermines a regional perspective by drawing daylight between a two-county operation and local control. And a glorified status quo agreement doesn't do much to change an inadequate funding formula. It doesn't even buy much time.
State Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, is right that both agencies need to take a much more serious look at merging. The region needs a better way to connect the downtowns, the job centers and the universities and airports with the neighborhoods across the region. The benefits of a merger would go beyond the monetary. It would mark the boldest step yet in making mass transit a functional component of the bay area's transportation system.